A former deputy curator at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum filed suit against the museum on Wednesday, alleging the organization violated her Constitutional right to free speech.
In the complaint, which was filed by the Center for Individual Rights on behalf of Kate Riotte, Riotte alleges museum leadership fired her in 2021 for questioning a new Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion policy. The suit was filed in federal court.
In February 2021, according to the complaint, the museum created a voluntary task force to “address racial equity” which Riotte joined and attended meetings. In March, the group’s two leaders sent out an email that included a draft web page outlining the new policy and requested feedback from task force members, including Riotte.
According to the filing, Riotte emailed both of them saying the following: “[w]hy is equity essential for the growth of the Wadsworth? I would think that striving for equity would be detrimental to the organization.” She also asked for additional information as to why the museum was making the effort, requested a definition for “systemic racism” which was reportedly used on the webpage but did not include a definition, and asked, “why is advancing racial equity, specifically, something seen as being attainable, and even desired?”
Riotte says in the complaint that both the group leaders responded to her email. One copied Michael Dudich, the Deputy Director of Operations for the museum. The other included links to resources where she could learn more about the subject which Riotte says she did read, though no one at the museum followed up.
The following Monday, Riotte says she had a Zoom meeting to discuss her email with Dudich and her direct supervisor. Both, “acknowledged that some of Plaintiff’s questions arose out of an honest effort to understand a complex issue, but they believed that other questions revealed a political agenda,” according to the complaint.
Riotte says that Friday she was asked to leave work to “self reflect,” at which point she noticed she no longer had access to her email. She was fired by phone the following Monday. Dudich allegedly told Riotte that her “views on equity and equality” were the reason for her termination. An email from Dudich later in the day said “[w]hile questioning and seeking understanding are acceptable and encouraged workplace behaviors the opinions you expressed in your email . . . were highly confrontational to the Museums [sic] core espoused institutional values.”
Riotte was reportedly forced to find work outside of the museum industry at a lower rate of pay as a result of the firing.
In the complaint, Riotte is seeking reinstatement at the museum as well as the expungement of the incident from her personnel record, and an undetermined amount of monetary damages. CII has reached out to representatives at The Wadsworth Atheneum for comment.