Alaska arts worker says she lost job over her governor posts

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JUNEAU, Alaska A former employee of the Alaska State Council on the Arts said she lost her position due to her online support for a campaign to remove the governor from office.

Keren Lowell said she lost her job when Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed the agency’s budget earlier this year, The Anchorage Daily News reported Thursday.

When the state Legislature restored the council’s funding, Lowell received notification she would not be restored to her position, she said.

The Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said it sent a letter to Dunleavy’s administration claiming Lowell was the subject of unlawful retaliation.

The letter was a precursor to a potential lawsuit, ACLU of Alaska Legal Director Stephen Koteff said.

Megan Edge, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Alaska, said by email that the letter sent Thursday “is the same as a notice of intent to sue. It is essentially the first step in the legal process. The demand letter gives the defendants our notice of intent, but also an opportunity to settle outside of court.” The letter set a Jan. 9 deadline to receive a response from the governor.

The ACLU’s claims are based on a September email to Lowell from the arts council’s Executive Director Andrea Noble, which Lowell shared with the newspaper, saying the decision not to rehire Lowell “is related to statements made on social media about the governor.”

The decision was made by the governor’s director of boards and commissions, meaning the governor and his chief of staff may not be aware of the issue, ACLU officials said.

Jeff Turner, the governor’s deputy communications director, said the letter had not yet been received.

Alaska law prohibits the use of political beliefs in making hiring decision for state jobs. But that protection does not apply to some exempt jobs including Lowell’s arts council position.

The claims by Lowell and the ACLU are principally based on First Amendment grounds, not state law, they said.

“My role with the state as a public servant does not mean I have to surrender my First Amendment rights,” Lowell said.

While she made some political posts online while still an employee, “it wasn’t until I was released from state service that I became more active,” Lowell said.

The ACLU’s Koteff said the state “doesn’t have the right to make determinations about who will work for state government based upon whether they think their politics are acceptable.”