Former Alaska arts council employee wins $85K settlement after losing her job for criticizing governor

The State of Alaska has agreed to pay a settlement to Keren Lowell over an employment grievance she says was tied to statements she made on social media about the governor. (ACLU of Alaska)

The State of Alaska has agreed to pay $85,000 to a former Arts Council employee who says she lost her job for making negative comments about the governor on social media.

Keren Lowell held several positions with the Alaska Council on the Arts over a span of eight years. She and her colleagues lost their jobs in 2019 when Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed the council’s funding.

Later, when the funding was restored, most of her co-workers were hired back, but she was not, Lowell said.

“I got an email that said basically, ‘The decision to rehire you was denied because of statements you made on social media. Call us and let us know if you have any questions,’ and I called and it was like crickets, nobody wanted to talk to me,” Lowell said.

After her state employment had ended, Lowell said she had taken her anger about the governor’s vetoes to Facebook — only in a minor way, she says — and had a small role in the effort to recall him. And while she had wondered if her comments would be a problem in getting her job back, Lowell said she was still surprised the state admitted, in writing, that was the reason she wasn’t rehired.

Lowell saw it as a violation of her First Amendment right to free speech, and she took the case to the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, which did not file a lawsuit, as other former state employees have done in similar cases, but sent the governor’s office a letter of Lowell’s intent to sue.

That led to the settlement for lost wages and other “non-economic” damages, announced Monday.

Lowell said she did not want to cost the state thousands of dollars, but added that she’s had real economic hardships related to losing her job. And Lowell said she hopes the settlement shows others that their right to free speech is protected.

“Speak your mind, don’t be worried about, when you speak your mind, that you’re going to lose your job, or your friends or your standing in the community,” she said.

Officials with the state Department of Law declined a request for an interview but emailed a written statement.

“This issue has been settled to the satisfaction of both parties taking into account how much a case like this costs to litigate,” the statement says.

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