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Firing of LSU Professor Who Used Profanity in the Classroom Raises Concerns

By June 30, 2015

Last week, Louisiana State University (LSU) associate professor Teresa Buchanan learned that she was fired from LSU as a result of what she’s calling a “witch hunt.”

In April, a faculty review committee ruled on Buchanan’s use of curse words and sex-themed jokes, recommending corrective action but unanimously voting against her firing. LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander ignored the committee’s advice and took the situation further by asking LSU’s Board of Supervisors to fire Buchanan.

Buchanan appealed to LSU’s Board of Supervisors, citing her satisfactory performance reviews and arguing that her use of profanity in the classroom did not qualify as sexual harassment. The Advocate reports:

The 20-year veteran of LSU argues that she has never sexually harassed anyone, though she acknowledged using profanity every so often and making jokes to keep the attention of her students or to jolt them to consider classroom issues they hadn’t considered.

However, the Board granted Alexander’s request and fired Buchanan, who claims that LSU’s actions represent a serious violation of her rights:

She said the university is trying to dictate how she teaches and in the process is impinging on her academic freedom.

“The occasional use of profanity is not sexual harassment,” Buchanan said. “Nor is the occasional frank discussion of issues related to sexuality, particularly when done in the context of teaching specific issues related to sexuality.”

Reason’s Robby Soave covered the story further, explaining that some of the examples cited against Buchanan were her use of the word “pussy” in an off-campus conversation with a teacher and jokes that female students “shouldn’t expect their boyfriends to keep helping them out with their coursework after the sex gets stale.”

FIRE’s Peter Bonilla gave this statement about the controversy to Soave:

Among the offenses cited against Buchanan are her occasional use of profanity among her adult students as well as occasional sexual jokes and references. Such interchanges are presumptively protected by a faculty member’s free speech and academic freedom rights and by themselves seem to fall well short of constituting any kind of actionable sexual harassment.

Unfortunately, this fits with FIRE’s recent experiences. FIRE has seen multiple faculty members in recent years investigated, suspended from teaching, removed from campus, and even fired from their positions over similar complaints to those against Buchanan at LSU. Their universities have regularly shown remarkable indifference to their academic freedom rights even when their speech at issue was demonstrably germane to their teaching or were themselves direct applications of the assigned course materials.

LSU’s ruling that Buchanan’s speech created a “hostile learning environment” deserves plenty of scrutiny, and Buchanan’s claims that accusations like these could be used to make her the victim of a witch hunt are not unfounded.

FIRE will be watching this situation closely. Check back to The Torch for updates.

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