Case Status: Victory. Settled on Favorable Terms

Riotte v. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Kate Riotte had worked for the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (“Museum”) for six years when she was summarily fired for asking the wrong questions about an equity policy that the museum was developing.

In February 2021, she volunteered to serve on a cross-level Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Working Group, which was formed to educate employees about the museum’s plans to align its programs around the principle of racial equity.

In March, Riotte and other Working Group members were asked to review a draft website that was designed to explain the new policy to the public.  The Working Group was invited to comment if they had “any thoughts or concerns about wording.”  Riotte replied the next day with a few questions. Among them, she asked for more information to help her understand why equity was essential for the growth of the museum. And she asked if the museum had specifics on how racial equity was desirable or attainable for an institution such as a museum.

Within ten days, she was fired.

Riotte Tries to Conciliate

Shortly after Riotte replied to the email, Joe Bun Keo, one of the two co-chairs of the Working Group, wrote back that he was “quite confused by [her] questions” and that “[f]rom first glance, it can be interpreted as [her] being a proponent for the allowing the continuation of oppression.”

Keo insisted that the museum could attain racial equity by “implementing changes in hiring practices, wage disparities, and the destruction of the dominant white male Eurocentric narrative that permeates through the current culture and language of the museums as a whole.”  As an example, he asked “why have an exhibition about beautiful porcelain sugar vessels and not discuss the slavery that was rampant during the sugar trade at the time.”

Anne Rice, the other co-chair, emailed Riotte with some information on the museum’s equity philosophy and pressed her to study it.  She told Riotte that “museums have historically been oriented from and towards European white culture.” As a result, the museum industry was complicit with “systemic racism,” which she viewed as “ubiquitous in American culture.”

Riotte began to study the material that Rice had given her. She was hopeful that she would have further discussions with Keo and Rice to better understand the proper role of equity at the museum. However, museum officials had different ideas.

“We don’t think she can stay”

A few days later, two other museum officials, Michael Dudich, Deputy Director of Operations, and Linda Roth, Riotte’s acting supervisor, called Riotte via Zoom. Dudich and Roth allowed that some of Kate’s questions reflected an honest effort to understand the museum’s equity policy, but they felt that other parts of her email crossed the line, particularly her questioning why racial equity was desirable. They thought this betrayed doubt about the policy as a whole, possibly even a political agenda.

Dudich told Riotte that he found her email offensive, especially because she addressed her questions to Keo, a “person of color.” He instructed Riotte to look up the concept of “allyship” and warned her that if she harbored any doubts about the idea of racial equity, she might not have a future in the museum industry.

Riotte realized her efforts to salvage her job had failed when, a few days later, she overheard Dudich say, “We don’t think she can stay.” She was told to go home and “self-reflect.” Several hours later, museum officials disabled her email account.

Three days later, Dudich and Roth called Riotte to fire her. In his subsequent letter of termination, Dudich wrote that:

“While questioning and seeking understanding are acceptable and encouraged workplace behaviors, the opinions you expressed in your email of March 11, 2021 to the co-chairs of the DEAI working group were highly confrontational to the museums [sic] core espoused institutional values.

While we had hoped with time you may have come to understand that equity in the workplace is anything but “detrimental” and that it is both “desirable and attainable,” the line you crossed offended to the degree that it has robbed us of this time. As such, we are not comfortable with you remaining as a member of the museum staff. “

CIR filed suit under a Connecticut law that extends First Amendment protections for freedom of speech to private employees.

Updates on this Case

Museum Fires Employee for Questioning Equity

  • Case Updates

On March 8, 2023, the Center for Individual Rights filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut on behalf of Kate Riotte, a former curatorial administrator at the Wadsworth…

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