These days, KHSU-FM — the once-vibrant public radio station operated by Humboldt State — may offer nothing more than canned programming from outside the area.
But even if the station itself no longer makes content, the slow, spectacular meltdown that culminated in its total evisceration in April 2019 still provides.
The latest chapter in the saga: Former station manager Peter Fretwell, a personage loathed by the station’s longtime staff and volunteers, has filed a federal lawsuit against the California State University Board of Trustees in which he claims, among other things, that he was the target of religious persecution by a mob comprised of his underlings and other KHSU hangers-on, and that HSU administration failed to “protect” him from that mob.
From his complaint:
[Fretwell] was publicly attacked for being an “old” “Christian” “man” who must surely have fired [former program director Katie] Whiteside, host of a popular pagan music show, on account of religious animus. He was also falsely and publicly decried as a right-wing Christian fundamentalist.
Instead of protecting him from the mob and investigating his complaints, the University retaliated against him, signaling its decision that he should leave. Eventually, the University made the decision to terminate local control of the radio station, ostensibly because it had sacrificed not only Fretwell himself, but local support of the station, and University control.
The University succeeded, not only in wrongfully terminating Fretwell, but in destroying his career and his future.
One of Fretwell’s attorneys of record works for the Church State Council, which bills itself as “a religious liberty ministry of the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.”
The story from the point of view of “the mob” is pretty well known by now — Fretwell, brought in as station manager in 2017, soon set about taking actions that upended the longstanding culture of the station. In May 2018, Whiteside — who had been at the station for decades — was fired, and Fretwell was blamed. A struggle for control of the station very publicly ensued, with demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns and threats of workplace sabotage. Fretwell suddenly disappeared. A couple of months later, everyone was fired and the station went on autopilot.
But in the lawsuit we get, maybe for the first time, Fretwell’s full story of his experience, which was apparently shot through with anti-Christian bigotry and a lack of concern from his employers. In his telling, Fretwell was hired on to modernize and professionalize KHSU, and after he did that, when the backlash hit, the university fed him to the mob — to such a degree, he says, that he had to flee the state for his own safety:
Although he was permitted to remain on salary until his formal termination, Fretwell had been 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.
How did such a frightening state of affairs come to pass?
Fretwell says his job was to move KHSU away from being a “community radio” station, with its ragtag band of volunteers’ music shows and community calendars and the like. Instead, the administration was looking for a “public radio” model, with “important local and state news, in-depth public affairs, vigorous civic dialogue, professional journalists, etc.”
However, he was quickly shown where true power at the station lay. First he tried to get people to dial back on volunteers’ use or abuse of the station’s internal email listserv. A few people were just sending way too many emails, and they were clogging up inboxes all over campus! People would just start deleting them without reading them. So he instituted email reform.
But some people didn’t like that. From the complaint:
That was his first brush with KHSU’s inverted culture, where a few volunteers had developed a culture where they bullied others into “going along to get along.” The volunteer culture often managed the station successfully by force of sheer numbers and group intimidation.
This became more serious when Fretwell discovered that paid staff members were also performing volunteer work at the station — a violation, he claims, of federal labor law. He took his concerns to the university’s human resources department, and together they ordered that this practice must end. However, he claims, his deputy — Whiteside — continued to allow staff members to volunteer their time, and when she sought to find ways around it they concluded, in Fretwell’s words, that she “consciously challenged and violated the Fair Labor Standards Act.” After meetings between himself, HSU administration, the human resources department and the university-affiliated Sponsored Programs Foundation, all four parties agreed to fire her in May 2018.
This is when the mob formed in earnest, Fretwell says, and he became its sole target. HSU declined to accept any of the responsibility for Whiteside’s termination, he says in the complaint, and so outrage focused on his own person — his age, his sex and his Christian faith.
He received a voicemail from a community member, which is transcribed in the complaint ..
So my recommendation for you is to eat a little crow, apologize, put Katie back in… or we’re coming after your job! And it’s just that, if you’re trying for retirement in a few years of time, but you will not go down well in history. And your children - If you have them - or your friends may wonder what you’re doing, because you’re gonna be shamed!
… that he promptly forwarded to the University Police Department. The police department’s response was unsatisfactory, he says.
Fretwell says he was on the receiving end of much more abuse of that kind in the weeks that followed, particularly at meetings of the station’s Community Advisory Board, where he was “subjected to discriminatory intimidation, public ridicule, and numerous insults based on his age, religion and gender.”
He again asked Humboldt State to step up and take responsibility for firing Whiteside, he says, and he says that again the University took no action.
After a couple of months spent trying to disallow the Community Advisory Board from meeting again on campus, Fretwell in late July met with the University’s Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation Prevention Administrator and filed a formal complaint. According to Fretwell, the subsequent investigation was slipshod and its conclusions were not acted upon. In the meanwhile, he says, another staff member filed a discrimination complaint against him, and he was suddenly stripped of his ability to discipline KHSU staffers. At which point things only got worse, he says, and he eventually was “forced” to flee town.
Fretwell claims that the administration violated his civil rights through harassment and discrimination based on his age, gender and religious beliefs, and also that the university retaliated against him after he blew the whistle on illegal activity at KHSU. He asks the court for an unspecified but presumably large amount of money — to compensate for lost wages, for “non-economic” damages” he suffered, for attorney’s fees; and also additional money in order to punish the university for its alleged misdeeds. He asks the court to enjoin the CSU system from ever allowing such unjust behavior again.
The CSU Board of Trustees, meanwhile, has filed a preliminary response to Fretwell’s complaint. It offers a broad and pro forma denial to most of the factual allegations he puts forth. Further, it charges that he’s late in bringing these claims forward, that the university had “good and legal” reasons for taking the actions it did throughout the whole affair, and that Fretwell himself has “unclean hands” in the matter.
- “Complaint for Economic, Compensatory and Punitive Damages, and Injunctive Relief,” Fretwell v. Board of Trustees of the California State University. Nov. 23, 2020.
- “Defendant Board of Trustees of California State University’s Answer to Plaintiff’s Complaint.” March 16, 2021.
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