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Natelson seeks regents' help
in clash with UM Law School

By CHARLES S. JOHNSON
of the Missoulian State Bureau
June 20, 2004

HELENA - University of Montana professor Rob Natelson, accusing the Law School of discriminating against him for years because of his conservative political views, has asked the state Board of Regents to overturn a decision denying him the opportunity to teach constitutional law.

Natelson, who has twice run as a Republican for governor and led several ballot-issue campaigns to limit taxes, filed a formal appeal this week with Regents Chairman John Mercer of Polson. He asked that the regents consider his request or assign it to Higher Education Commissioner Sheila Stearns rather than allow it to be heard on the UM campus.

He asked the regents to reverse the Law School decision and order him to be transferred to the constitutional law teaching vacancy.

Natelson urged the regents to admonish the Law School "to reassess its policies and practices to assure that faculty members of all viewpoints receive equal opportunity and treatment in hiring, promotion, work practices, merit pay and faculty awards, and that there is greater viewpoint diversity among faculty."

In addition, he asked the regents to order the Law School to file "a plan of affirmative action (but not preferential hiring) to assure that the goals of equality opportunity, equal treatment and intellectual diversity are met." This may include, he said, "reassessment of intellectual political bias, faculty sensitivity training and basic education in federal and state provisions against illegal discrimination."

Mercer said Tuesday he had not yet seen Natelson's appeal, but added: "Every grievance that's outside the collective bargaining arena has an opportunity to go before the Board of Regents."

Stearns said she had not read Natelson's appeal either so she wasn't in a position to comment. She wasn't sure when his appeal would go before the regents.

Natelson said he has been the victim of "invidious political discrimination" at the UM Law School for more than a decade "once my conservative and pro-free-market views became known and I began to express them in public."

"I am a political conservative," he said in a 24-page supporting document. "To put it mildly, my law school colleagues are not. My views are fairly mainstream for Montana as a whole. I supported Ronald Reagan's campaigns for president and voted for President George W. Bush. I favor school choice, constitutional tax limitation and freedom-oriented solutions to social problems."

Natelson said he's been punished by the Law School in several ways. His requests for merit pay increase have been denied, he said, and his applications to teach constitutional law have been spurned four different times after professors teaching the course have left the school.

"The law school apparently views this course as politically sensitive and has kept it in liberal hands for over 20 years," Natelson said.

Ed Eck, dean of the Law School, couldn't comment on the allegation because it's set for a hearing on the UM campus Wednesday.

In his appeal, Natelson cited the Montana Constitution ban on political discrimination and said political discrimination by state agencies can be unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"From the time I joined the (UM law) faculty until after I began to express my conservative/free market political views in public (circa 1992-93), I was treated well," Natelson wrote. "This changed dramatically after my political views became known - in particular after I expressed opposition to tax increase. It continued when I publicly criticized the extreme activism of the Montana Supreme Court, with which the law school has a relationship too close to be appropriate for an academic institution."

Since joining the UM law faculty, Natelson said he has complied "a record of publication and public service that rivals any other faculty member." For example, he said his publication record, mostly in the area of constitutional law and constitutional history, accounts for 40 percent of all publications by the current full-time faculty.

"I have developed national reputations in constitutional subjects and in real property law," he said.

Natelson said he is "generally conceded to be one of the law school's most demanding and knowledgeable teachers." He said he has "conscientiously withstood the usual pressures (including administrative pressures) to court popularity by dumbing-down courses or inflating grades."

This appeal, he said, involves the latest in the Law School's "string of decisions denying me otherwise routine transfer into a vacant course in constitutional law." He called the transfer denials "particularly outrageous" since other faculty members are routinely transferred into vacant courses at their request, even if they have published little in law review articles in that area.

"On the other hand, I have published extensively on constitutional subjects in journals of high quality and have taught a relevant course for a decade," he said. "There seems to be no recent precedent for denying anybody but me such a transfer."

Natelson lost bids for governor in the 1996 and 2000 Republican primary races. He founded several conservative groups, including Montanans for Better Government, and was host of a statewide radio talk show for several years.

He led a signature-gathering campaign in which Montanans suspended and ultimately rejected a 1993 state income tax increase. In 1998, he spearheaded a voter-approved constitutional initiative that would have required voter approval before state and local governments could raise taxes and certain fees. That measure, however, was struck down as unconstitutional by the Montana Supreme Court.