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Fired LSU Professor Files First Amendment Lawsuit Challenging Speech Code Championed by Feds

January 21, 2016

  • LSU claimed professor’s teaching methods violated sexual harassment policy that mirrors “blueprint” language proposed by U.S. Depts of Education, Justice
  • “LSU said I offended some people, called it sexual harassment, and fired me.”
  • Civil liberties advocates warned the policy threatened free speech on campus
  • Professor asks court to strike down LSU policy as unconstitutional, reverse firing

BATON ROUGE, La., January 21, 2016—Late yesterday, education professor Teresa Buchanan filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the president of Louisiana State University (LSU) and other top administrators for violating her free speech and due process rights by firing her last year. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is sponsoring Buchanan’s lawsuit, the eleventh in FIRE’s undefeated national Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project.

Buchanan was fired for her alleged occasional use of profanity and sexual language in preparing her adult students to be effective teachers. LSU claimed Buchanan’s teaching methods violated its policy prohibiting “sexual harassment” of students, which defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical behavior of a sexual nature.” LSU’s policy mirrors the language of the sexual harassment definition propagated by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice in 2013 as “a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country.” FIRE and other civil liberties advocates have warned this controversial language threatens the free speech and academic freedom rights of faculty and students. Buchanan’s lawsuit challenges the policy and its application to her.

“FIRE predicted that universities would silence and punish faculty by using the Department of Education’s unconstitutional definition of sexual harassment—and that’s exactly what happened at LSU,” said FIRE Director of Litigation Catherine Sevcenko. “Under this broad definition of sexual harassment, professors risk punishment for teaching or discussing sex-related material, be it Nabokov’s Lolita or the latest episode of The Bachelor. Now Teresa is fighting back to protect her rights and the rights of her colleagues.”

Buchanan was a tenured associate professor teaching in LSU’s acclaimed prekindergarten through third grade teacher certification program. In December 2013, she was informed that she would not be allowed to teach during the Spring 2014 semester because of unspecified allegations that she had made “inappropriate comments” while teaching college-aged teacher education students. At the time, Buchanan—who had taught at LSU for nearly 20 years—was in the final stages of approval for a promotion to full professor. Six months later, in May 2014, Buchanan was informed by the LSU Office of Human Resource Management that she was being charged with violating the university’s sexual harassment policy. Although a few students complained about her teaching style, not a single student—or anyone else—ever accused her of sexual harassment.

FIRE has warned that policy language like LSU’s fails to meet the Supreme Court’s controlling standard for sexual harassment in the educational context and is unconstitutional.

In the months that followed Buchanan’s sexual harassment charges, LSU failed to provide her with specific information about the charges or who had filed the complaints about her. These failures violated the university’s policies and Buchanan’s due process rights. Nonetheless, Buchanan tried to explain to LSU administrators in a letter that she occasionally uses sexual language and humor in lessons and role-playing exercises as a way to help student teachers. She explained that her lessons are meant to prepare educators for their future interactions with “children from family backgrounds that are different from their own” and to highlight the importance of building “effective and reciprocal relationships with all families.”

In March 2015, a faculty committee unanimously determined that the university should not consider terminating her employment. The panel of her peers felt that it would be sufficient for Buchanan to modify her behavior. The LSU administration ignored the faculty recommendation, and in June 2015, LSU’s Board of Supervisors fired Buchanan. In a subsequent statement to the press, LSU justified its actions by stating that it was following “the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights’ [sic] advisements.”

On October 6, 2015, the LSU Faculty Senate adopted a resolution censuring the administration for applying “confusing, dangerous, and untenable standards” to Buchanan and called on LSU to reverse its decision. Likewise, in September, the American Association of University Professors issued a report finding that Buchanan’s rights to due process and academic freedom were violated.

“It’s a professor’s job to provoke students into thinking and examining their assumptions,” Buchanan said, “and that’s precisely what I did. You don’t have to be a lawyer to know it’s wrong to fire a professor for exercising her academic freedom. LSU said I offended some people, called it sexual harassment, and fired me. In doing so, they violated LSU’s promises of free speech and academic freedom for its faculty.”

“LSU is not alone in having a policy that mirrors the Department of Education’s unconstitutional definition of sexual harassment,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “Colleges across the country such as Clemson, Penn State, and the University of Connecticut have also adopted the language, which threatens the free speech rights of countless faculty members just like Teresa. FIRE has long said the definition is unconstitutional. We think a federal court will do the same.”

FIRE retained preeminent First Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine and his colleagues Ronald London and Lisa Zycherman to represent Buchanan in this Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project lawsuit.

FIRE is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and freedom of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

Schools: Louisiana State University – Baton Rouge Cases: Louisiana State University – Stand Up For Speech Lawsuit