Profanity, Not Pedagogy

Court rejects terminated professor's First Amendment suit against LSU, saying there's no meaningful connection between her vulgar language and training teachers.

January 15, 2018
 
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
Teresa Buchanan

Louisiana State University was within its rights in terminating Teresa Buchanan for cursing at students and talking about sex in the classroom, a federal judge said last week in dismissing the former education professor’s lawsuit against the institution.

Buchanan, a longtime tenured professor who was terminated in 2015, sued Louisiana State for First Amendment and due process violations, and for having what she described as overly broad, subjective and therefore unconstitutional sexual harassment policies. But U.S. District Court Judge Shelly D. Dick threw out all three claims with prejudice.

Buchanan’s “profanity and discussions regarding her own sex life and the sex lives of her students in the classroom do not constitute First Amendment protected speech, are not matters of public concern, and are not, as claimed by plaintiff, part of her overall pedagogical strategy for teaching preschool and elementary education to students,” Dick wrote in a 79-page summary judgment in favor of the Louisiana State administrators named in the complaint, including President F. King Alexander.

Rather, Dick said, the legal record suggests that Buchanan’s “behavior and speech interfered with the educational opportunities of her students both in the classroom and in the student teacher or field setting.”

LSU’s harassment policies, “read together, are not unconstitutionally broad or vague,” Dick also noted, since they cite a common “reasonable person” standard for assessing the severity of offensive speech. Buchanan had opportunities to defend her behavior before she was dismissed, and failed to provide any evidence that that process was biased against her, the judge added.

Academic freedom advocates have rallied around Buchanan’s case, criticizing a research institution for ousting a professor over what’s been described as “salty” language. They point out a five-person LSU faculty committee unanimously voted against Buchanan’s dismissal before administrators terminated her anyway. Buchanan's faculty peers said that while her language was crude, it wasn’t “systematically directed at any particular individual.”

But the court over all found that the university’s interests in protecting students outweighed Buchanan’s free speech interests.

Among other things, Buchanan is accused of using the word “pussy” while visiting a local elementary school (but not to children), belittling one of her own students during an assessment meeting and offering another student condoms while warning her that her grades would suffer if she chose to become a mother. Enjoy sex “while the sex is good,” Buchanan is alleged to have told the student in front of her classmates. “Just wait until you’re married five years.”

Administrators testified that Buchanan was the subject of numerous student complaints alleging excessive use of profanity in the classroom and talk of sex. They also said local elementary schools requested that she not visit student teachers there. Buchanan argued in court that her teaching style was aimed at loosening students up and preparing them for the kind of language they’d hear from their students’ parents.

But Dick found that rationale “spurious,” saying Buchanan had failed to provide any evidence of a “connection between the use of the vulgarities and unwelcome prying into students’ sex lives with the teaching of pre-K-3 education or supervising student-teachers at elementary school campuses.”

Buchanan, who was an otherwise high-performing faculty member on her way to promotion to full professor before her termination, was seeking reinstatement to her position. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which sponsored her lawsuit as part of its Stand Up for Speech litigation project, said in a statement that it was “deeply disappointed by the district court’s ruling” and believes the case was “wrongly decided.” FIRE is reviewing all its legal options, it said.

Alexander, the president, said in a statement that the university is “resolute in supporting academic freedom, which is the cornerstone of university teaching and research.” However, he said, “this case was not about the rights of tenured professors or academic freedom. We had documented evidence of a history of inappropriate behavior that included verbal abuse, intimidation and harassment of our students, and we are pleased that the court agreed with the university’s actions.”

The American Association of University Professors censured LSU in 2011 over concerns about academic freedom there. It published a supplemental report on academic freedom at LSU in in 2015, in relation to the Buchanan case. Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary for academic freedom, tenure and governance at AAUP, said that the recent legal development affects nothing in terms of LSU’s ongoing censure.

A case getting dismissed in court doesn’t affect “our judgment that a particular termination of a faculty appointment was at odds with our principles,” Tiede said.

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