Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA –To hear former KHSU General Manager Peter Fretwell tell it, he was a lonely soldier for reform surrounded by knaves and kneecapped at every turn.
Fretwell, who occupied the center of the storm that overtook Humboldt State University’s public radio station in 2019, lists his grievances in a lawsuit filed against the California State University (CSU).
In the court filing, Fretwell purports to document everything from religious discrimination to insubordination and physical threats, tallying up no fewer than nine claims for relief. The suit asks for compensatory and punitive damages, reimbursement for costs and injunctions against any further violations by the CSU. It demands a jury trial.
The CSU denies all of Fretwell’s allegations, stating that he didn’t exhaust administrative remedies, filed the suit too late, has “unclean hands” and “failed to use ordinary care and diligence in the performance of his duties and failed to comply substantially with the reasonable directions of his employer.”
Fretwell’s lawsuit also discloses for the first time the answer to the most puzzling riddle of the omnibus imbroglio – why Operations Director Katie Whiteside was abruptly fired – or at least his rationale for the dismissal.
It also counters a perception among station staff and volunteers that Fretwell and the HSU administration were working in lockstep to dismantle KHSU’s longstanding culture. The suit depict Fretwell at odds with the administration, with key officials failing to support him in the reform mission for which he was hired.
The harrowing tale of a man alone against a wall of injustice is detailed in a 25-page complaint dated Nov. 19 and filed in U.S. District Court.
The lawsuit’s narrative begins in 2017, when Fretwell was hired. It states that Fretwell undertook his mission with study and review, but soon clashed with the station’s “inverted culture,” where a volunteers “bullied others.” It somewhat contradictorily blames “a few volunteers” for the alleged bullying, then, in the next sentence, claims “the volunteer culture often managed the station by force of sheer numbers and group intimidation.”
The clash with Whiteside, he claims, had to do with his efforts to reduce uncompensated volunteers in keeping with labor law. As program director, Whiteside allegedly disobeyed his directive that show host Wendy Butler log her hours and be paid for her work.
He claims that during a meeting, Whiteside sought to falsify Butler’s job description in violation of federal law, resulting in her termination on May 15, 2018.
In ensuing weeks, the suit claims, “attacks on Fretwell began to focus on his religious background, age, and gender.” He sought support from HSU’s administration, which he says failed to clarify the reasons for Whiteside’s firing or to defend him against a voicemail threat from a volunteer that “we’re coming after your job.”
He calls a subsequent meeting of the Community Advisory Board (CAB) a “public harassment session,” with a “mob of more than 100 KHSU volunteers, staff, and community members crowded into the meeting room to call for Fretwell’s dismissal.”
More harassment ensued in weeks to follow, he says, with Fretwell depicted as “an old, male Christian bigot, a stereotype that held sway with both the public and many radio station staff.” In response, he says, HSU did nothing, and then-HSUPD Chief Donn Peterson even blamed Fretwell for the imbroglio, and the administration did nothing to defend him.
After his April, 2019 layoff, he claims, he was “forced to flee not merely the campus, but the community, even the State of California – in an effort to restore some measure of mental and physical health.”
In sum, the suit alleges harassment and discrimination for his age, religion, sex/gender and/or race/color; retaliation; whistleblower violations; and failure to prevent discrimination and harassment.