Ph.D. Candidate Files Civil Rights Suit Against U. Houston

This story was written by JOSHUA MALONE, The Daily Cougar


History Ph.D. candidate Timothy O'Brien filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Monday against the University of Houston and former interim president John Rudley.

The lawsuit claims UH violated O'Brien's first amendment rights to free speech and that UH retaliated by filing false disciplinary charges against him.

O'Brien claims UH administration, Texas Southern University President Rudley, interim president at UH for summer and fall 2007, and UH President and UH System Chancellor Renu Khator have been unhappy with Students for Fair Trade and Students Against Sweatshops, two organizations in which O'Brien is active, and the media coverage that follows their methods of protest.

O'Brien specifically noted four disciplinary charges filed against him shortly after a June 17 article in The Houston Chronicle. The article discussed Students for Fair Trade storming into Khator's office to protest Starbucks' role in fair-trade coffee.

O'Brien also said Vice President of Student Affairs Elwyn Lee, husband to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, personally filed disciplinary charges in an attempt to prevent him from publishing doctoral research O'Brien considers to be damaging to Jackson-Lee's political career.

The research concerns Freedmen's Town, a largely black neighborhood in the Fourth Ward where O'Brien is a resident. O'Brien believes Jackson-Lee has displaced low-income residents and revoked promises to preserve historic neighborhood landmarks.

O'Brien specifically mentioned Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist, which collapsed in May 2008, and said Jackson-Lee failed to help restore Mt. Carmel and other neighborhood churches after making promises to do so.

"Lee is afraid that my research about Freedmen's Town, a historic black neighborhood adjacent to downtown, will come out and show what (Jackson-Lee) has been doing to wreck my neighborhood for the past 13 years," O'Brien said.

Lee declined to comment on the events surrounding Freedmen's Town and Jackson-Lee, but disagreed with O'Brien's claim the administration would retaliate against his activism.

"We try to act fairly and constructively with all student groups. We encourage and embrace student activism," Lee said. "I don't think what (O'Brien) has alleged will hold up to the scrutiny of investigation."

O'Brien said administration has reduced his graduate funding as a form of retaliation, claiming his teaching assistant funding was cut for the 2007-2008 school year and for the coming 2008-2009 school year.

He also said because of the monetary constraints, he may not be able to continue pursuing his Ph.D.

"If I don't have my Ph.D., I have less legitimacy," O'Brien said. "If I get my Ph.D., I can get my research published about Freedmen's Town and the hard work my black neighbors have been doing."

In his lawsuit, O'Brien requests UH restore his graduate funding and release a ruling that the University violated his free speech rights.
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