Judge tosses former LSU professor’s high-profile lawsuit against university administrators

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by a former LSU education professor who argued her firing, for allegedly violating the school’s sexual harassment policies, violated her free speech and due process rights.

The suit, filed in 2016 against top LSU administrators, quickly turned into a high-profile debate over sexual harassment and free speech rights at universities. Judge Shelly Dick, of the Middle District of Louisiana, dismissed the suit on Wednesday.

“We really appreciate the fact that academic freedom can’t be used as a source to harass and abuse our students and that’s what the judge saw clearly,” LSU President F. King Alexander says, “and that’s why we’re really pleased with the ruling.”

Teresa Buchanan, a former education professor, was fired in 2015 over allegations she repeatedly made sexual and profane comments to students. A faculty panel who evaluated the case found Buchanan violated the school’s sexual harassment policies and created a “hostile learning environment,” but didn’t recommend her firing. The LSU Board of Supervisors later voted to terminate her after Alexander recommended her firing.

Buchanan’s lawyer did not return messages seeking comment, and it was not immediately clear whether Buchanan planned to appeal the ruling. But the advocacy group FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), which sponsored Buchanan’s lawsuit, disagreed with the judge’s decision.

“FIRE is deeply disappointed by the district court’s ruling and believe the case was wrongly decided. While we review all of our options, we invite you to read Teresa Buchanan’s side of the story.

In ruling on the case, Dick writes Buchanan’s vulgar language and discussion of her students’ sex lives weren’t relevant to educating those students on becoming teachers of preschool through third grade students. Buchanan’s behavior and speech interfered with the educational opportunities of her students, Dick found.

“Additionally, the fact that Zachary Schools, the LSU Lab School, Port Allen Elementary Schools, and Iberville Parish Schools had either banned Plaintiff from their campuses or requested that LSU not allow her to mentor their student teachers due to Plaintiff’s conduct and speech further demonstrates that Plaintiff’s conduct and speech served no pedagogical purpose,” Dick writes.

It was “objectively reasonable” for LSU administrators to launch an investigation into Buchanan after multiple students lodged complaints against the professor, and for Alexander to recommend her firing. Buchanan also failed to prove LSU’s sexual harassment policies are unconstitutional or that her due process rights were violated.

Buchanan and her lawyers maintain her use of vulgar language didn’t rise to the level of sexual harassment. Several students, however, had complained about the professor’s sexually-tinged and profane comments, setting off the school’s investigation.

After LSU fired Buchanan, the LSU Faculty Senate voiced displeasure with the decision, voting to censure Alexander, along with Provost Stuart Bell and Damon Andrew, dean of the College of Human Sciences and Education.

“We don’t want the administration to think that this is a vindication of all their actions regarding Dr. Buchanan,” says Kenneth McMillin, the current Faculty Senate president.

While McMillin says he thinks “alternative paths” could have been taken in Buchanan’s case, the faculty plans to use it as a learning experience, and says the relationship between the administration and faculty has improved since the issue first arose.

—Sam Karlin

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