Accusers of doctor Robert Anderson sue UM over public comment rules

Staff and wire reports

Detroit – Ten people who say they were molested by Dr. Robert Anderson sued the University of Michigan on Thursday over a policy that limits the number of people who can offer public comment at meetings of the school’s governing board.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of nine men and a woman who said Anderson abused them during his decades as a campus physician. They said they were denied an opportunity to address the Board of Regents in July, in violation of Michigan’s open meetings law.

The university caps the number of speakers and limits the number of people who can talk about a specific topic at five.

Regents have been meeting by video conference during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2017, the number of speakers was increased to as many as 17, under certain conditions, from 10.

Attorney Parker Steinar (left) listens to Tad DeLuca, former University of Michigan wrestler, speak about former Dr. Robert Anderson during a press conference in Ann Arbor on June 16, 2021. Ten sexual assault victims sued UM on Thursday over a policy that limits the number of people who can offer public comment at meetings of the school's Board of Regents.

Five people who said they were assaulted by Anderson spoke in July, spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said.

Regents have the “authority to establish rules by which members of the public may address a meeting of the board, and the process in place at U-M is consistent with those at other Michigan public universities,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said there have been many people allegedly abused by Anderson who have spoken before the regents.

"Additionally, each week the university and members of the Board of Regents receive and carefully review a significant number of email messages and other correspondence from individuals who bring issues to the attention of university leaders."

Vincent Washington is among more than 800 men who say he was molested by Anderson while he was a football player during the late 1980s. He has not spoken publicly about the abuse but applied to speak during the July regents meeting. His request was denied because five other people were speaking on the same issue. 

"It was extremely disappointing," said Washington, who lives in Atlanta. "You just wonder – do they want to know? Do they want to hear from players? Do they even know or hear from real people who experience the issue?"

Victims of Larry Nassar, who abused hundreds of young girls and women while he was a sports medicine doctor at Michigan State University and for USA Gymnastics, said that speaking publicly before the college's Board of Trustees or in court when Nassar was given effective life sentences played a role in their healing, said Parker Stinar, one of the lawyers who filed the suit in Ingham County Circuit Court.

"The university is trying to silence survivors from speaking," said Stinar.

Stinar said while those involved in the case can't talk about ongoing mediation proceedings, “The survivor of abuse can certainly share publicly their personal abuse with Anderson, and how they felt about it."

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order against UM's policy.

A public comment period is set aside at the end of regents meetings where individuals are allowed to speak for up to three minutes. 

The lawsuit includes language from the Michigan Attorney General’s Open Meetings Act Handbook, which says a public body may adopt a time frame for how long a person may address a public body, such as UM's three-minute rule.

"But a rule limiting the period of public comment may not be applied in a manner that denies a person a right to address the public body, such as limiting all public comment to a half-hour period," the suit says.

UM is in mediation with more than 800 former students, mostly men, who allege that Anderson engaged in unnecessary testicular and prostate exams, forced masturbation and other inappropriate sexual behavior. The university released in May a report by the WilmerHale law firm that was commissioned by UM showing the university failed to heed reports about Anderson's abuse. 

The next UM Board of Regents meeting is scheduled for Sept. 23.

Staff Writer Kim Kozlowski and Associated Press contributed.