A lawsuit was filed late yesterday in federal court against Tennessee State University, alleging practices of racial discrimination and retaliation by members of the school's faculty and staff.
Nashville attorneys Hal Hardin, Jeffery "Chip" Frensley and Bill Herbert filed Cela vs. Tennessee State University on behalf of Clarksville resident and Guam native Angela Cela.
The defendants in this case are Tennessee State University, professors Dr. Iris Johnson-Arnold and Dr. Tina Smith and Dr. Harold R. Mitchell, a department head.
In the suit — which is available at this link — Cela alleges that professors Smith and Johnson-Arnold, who served as advisers to TSU students regarding grant funding, and Mitchell, who was the head of the TSU Department of Speech and Audiology, “engaged in a systematic policy of unlawful practices of discrimination by creating a pervasive hostile environment based upon race, color, or national origin with respect to grading practices and in the awarding of grant monies to the Plaintiff and others similarly situated.”
Hardin and Frensley are known to many in the community for prevailing in the lawsuit against the Nashville U.S. Attorney's office and then-U.S. Attorney Jim Vines, in the age discrimination lawsuit of Moon vs. Department of Justice.
Asked about the Cela case, Hardin told The City Paper that discrimination against anyone “is hurtful, illegal, and causes suffering in a lot of areas, particularly a financially strapped student.”
“The Constitution protects all people from discrimination. This is not a white-versus-black lawsuit,” Hardin said. “The proof will show that some very courageous African-Americans stood shoulder to shoulder with the white students and said, ‘This is wrong.’”
Hardin added that he didn’t think Cela would be the only plaintiff, stating, “The lawsuit alleges that there are numerous other white students that have been discriminated against and we anticipate that other students will be joining the suit. TSU is one of the proud, great treasures of our community, and it deserves to finally be free of all of the shackles of discrimination.”
TSU is no stranger to race-related legal allegations. A long-standing civil rights case was filed by plaintiff Rita Sands Geier against the state of Tennessee and the U.S. government in 1968, and wasn’t dismissed until 2006. The case, which targeted alleged segregation in Tennessee’s higher education system, expanded to include a TSU faculty member and others in the 1970s. That led to a court-ordered merger of TSU and the University of Tennessee at Nashville, which in turn led to merger-related grievances filed in the 1980s.
Finally, in 2000, the Geier Consent Decree ordered that millions be invested in contributing to the diversity of all state-funded colleges in Tennessee. The consent decree was fully honored, and the case was dismissed in 2006.
The Cela case cites the Geier Concent Decree, arguing that plaintiffs in the Cela case are entitled to relief as third-party beneficiaries.
George Barrett, an attorney whose firm served as lead counsel for the original plaintiff in the Geier case, said Wednesday that the Cela case is “interesting.”
“I think it’s an interesting lawsuit and raises some interesting questions. I think they are very competent lawyers representing the plaintiffs,” Barrett said.