LSU Settles First Amendment Suit With Professor Terminated After Katrina Comments
The Louisiana-based publication The Advocate is reporting that Louisiana State University and former LSU engineering professor Ivor van Heerden have reached a settlement in the wrongful termination suit the former professor brought against LSU in February 2010. Van Heerden had been publicly critical of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over its responsibility for the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina. Van Heerden alleged that he had been marginalized and ultimately terminated by LSU as a result. As we reported here on The Torch, District Court Judge James J. Brady allowed van Heerden’s suit to proceed in 2011, declining LSU’s request for summary judgment.
In addition to the lawsuit brought by van Heerden, the American Association of University Professors investigated LSU and censured the university in 2012.
A jury trial in van Heerden’s case was scheduled for February 19, and recent events suggest LSU was motivated to reach a settlement after Judge Brady declined to exclude evidence beneficial to van Heerden’s case. As the Advocate notes:
And Friday, the judge denied LSU’s request that he exclude emails and other documents favorable to van Heerden from trial evidence.
Among those documents is a Dec. 18, 2009, report by Pratul Ajmera, then chairman of LSU’s Senate Faculty Grievance Committee.
Ajmera’s report concluded that van Heerden should have been granted tenure under LSU’s rules prior to the dispute over New Orleans’ levee designs in Katrina’s wake.
LSU also unsuccessfully argued for exclusion of a Dec. 17, 2009, email to Ajmera from Dan Edelman, a Washington attorney for van Heerden.
In that email, Edelman alleged that LSU rules require a dean to seek a recommendation from departmental faculty before severing ties to a professor, such as van Heerden. Edelman alleged Constant violated those rules by informing van Heerden on April 9, 2009, that his LSU career was at an end. Edelman said the departmental faculty did not vote on the issue until May 4, 2009.
Hopefully this outcome brings at least a modicum of closure to Professor van Heerden and stands as a lesson for LSU and its peers on the risks they take in discarding the free speech rights of their faculty.