Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks with his cabinet members at the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks with his cabinet members at the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Free speech under attack? ACLU alleges political retaliation in Dunleavy firings

Firings of state doctors, attorney raise free speech argument

Two former state doctors and a former state attorney are suing Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration, alleging they were terminated because of their political beliefs and for speaking out against the administration outside of work.

The lawsuits — from Dr. Anthony Blanford, Dr. John K. Bellville and former Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth “Libby” Bakalar — were filed Thursday morning by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alaska. Blanford and Bellville were previously with the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

The legal complaints name Dunleavy, Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock and the State of Alaska. The suits stem from the administration’s memorandum in November that all non-policymaking state workers submit their resignations and state their interest in continuing to work for the state.

Blanford and Bellville declined to resign, saying that doing so would violate their obligations to put their patients’ needs first. Blanford in particular was vocal, writing in a letter to the Anchorage Daily News entitled “I will not resign” that his allegiance is to his patients instead of the administration.

Bakalar, who was an attorney for the state for 12 years, submitted her resignation but made it clear that it wasn’t voluntary, according to an ACLU press release. Bakalar is outspoken about her political views, authoring a blog entitled “One Hot Mess Alaska” where she writes about everything from pop culture to Alaska life to national politics. She’s been particularly critical of President Donald Trump on the blog and has participated in multiple political rallies.

On Dec. 3 — the day Dunleavy was sworn in as governor — Bakalar, Blanford and Bellville were all notified that they had been terminated, according to the complaints. Bellville said during a press conference Thursday that when he got an email telling him he was terminated, he deleted it at first, thinking it was an error.

Also during Thursday’s press conference, which was held in Anchorage, the ACLU’s Joshua Decker said he believes evidence will show that Bakalar was terminated as “political retaliation” for “out-of-work free speech.” The legal complaint points out that Bakalar’s position is not a policymaking position and that party affiliation was never a requirement for her to be effective at work.

The complaint alleges that the administration fired Blanford and Bellville “for their refusal to offer their pledges of allegiance to the new administration and, as to Dr. Blanford, for the views he expressed in his letter to the editor.”

Bakalar, Blanford and Bellville are pursuing lost wages, benefits and damages, according to the complaints.

Bakalar and Bellville both made statements during Thursday’s press conference.

“I am not here for myself alone,” Bakalar said. “I am here to vindicate the rights of all non-political state employees who speak their mind in their own voices in their personal capacity, to not live in fear that expressing themselves in their voices on social media or attending a political rally on their own time will cost them their jobs.”

The complaint claims that Bakalar was “repeatedly recognized for professional excellence,” and that there was no reason to fire her for job performance. Bakalar said in her statement that she sometimes argued cases in court that didn’t align with her personal views, but that those views never affected her job performance.

According to the complaint, the state hired Anchorage attorney William Evans to investigate Bakalar’s blog to see if it had violated any ethics. On March 16, 2017, he issued a report concluding that she did not violate any ethical standards in expressing her political views on her blog, according to the complaint.

It’s not publicly known how many employees have been terminated since Dunleavy took office. A records request from the Empire to the governor’s office asking for the number of employees terminated has not yet been returned.

Cori Mills, a spokesperson for the Department of Law, said the state doesn’t comment on pending litigation and that personnel matters are confidential.

“The State of Alaska will review the complaint and file its response with the court, at which time we can provide a copy of the court filing,” Mills said.

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

More in News

Aurora Forecast

Forecasts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for the week of Feb. 5

Folks at the Alaska State Capitol openly admit to plenty of fish tales, but to a large degree in ways intended to benefit residents and sometimes even the fish. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
The bizarre bills other state legislatures are considering

Alaska’s Legislature isn’t mulling the headline-grabbers some statehouses have in the works.

This photo shows snow-covered hills in the Porcupine River Tundra in the Yukon Territories, Canada. In July 1997, a hunter contacted troopers in Fairbanks, Alaska, and reported finding a human skull along the Porcupine River, around 8 miles (13 kilometers) from the Canadian border. Investigators used genetic genealogy to help identify the remains as those of Gary Frank Sotherden, according to a statement Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, from Alaska State Troopers. (AP Photo / Rick Bowmer)
Skull found in ‘97 in Interior belongs to New York man

A skull found in a remote part of Alaska’s Interior in 1997… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police calls for Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023

This report contains information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Officer William Hicks stands with JPD Chief Ed Mercer and Deputy Chief David Campbell during a swearing in ceremony for Hicks on Thursday at the JPD station in Lemon Creek. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire)
New officer joins JPD’s ranks

The Juneau Police Department welcomed a new officer to its ranks Thursday… Continue reading

These photos show Nova, a 3-year-old golden retriever, and the illegally placed body hold trap, commonly referred to as a Conibear trap, that caught her while walking near Outer Point Trail last week. (Courtesy / Jessica Davis)
Dog narrowly survives rare illegally placed trap in Juneau

State wildlife officials outlined what to do if found in similar situation

Gavel (Courtesy photo)
Public defender agency to refuse some cases, citing staffing

ANCHORAGE — A state agency that represents Alaskans who cannot afford their… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Police: Gift card scam connected to hoax Fred Meyer threats

This article has been moved in front of the Empire’s paywall. A… Continue reading

This is a concept design drawing that was included in the request for proposal sent out by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities seeking outside engineering and design services to determine whether it’s feasible to build a new ferry terminal facility in Juneau at Cascade Point. (Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)
DOT takes steps toward potential Cascade Point ferry terminal facility

It would accommodate the Tazlina and or Hubbard, shorten trips to Haines and Skagway

Most Read