A fired Louisiana State University (LSU) professor has filed a lawsuit that could gut the Obama administration’s guidelines on what constitutes campus sexual harassment.
Teresa Buchanan, a tenured education professor, was fired by LSU in June 2015, roughly a year after school officials claimed that unspecified “inappropriate comments” she had made in the classroom violated the school’s sexual harassment policy. Colleges are obliged to punish sexual harassment under the federal government’s Title IX law, which allows for schools to lose all federal funding if they are found to have created or tolerated a hostile sexual environment on campus.
Buchanan has admitted using sexual language and humor during her lectures and during role-playing exercises in class, which she described as a means of preparing future teachers for interactions with students from unusual family backgrounds. According to a faculty review of her behavior, other potentially offensive aspects of Buchanan’s speech included using the word “pussy” to imply cowardice, joking that sex gets worse the longer a relationship lasts, and saying “fuck no” frequently.
Now, Buchanan has filed a lawsuit challenging her dismissal, claiming her free speech and due process rights were violated. She will have the support of LSU’s Faculty Senate and the American Association of University Professors, both of which have endorsed her cause.
“I will go to the grave proud of the job I did at LSU,” Buchanan said at a press conference. “I don’t regret anything that I did.” She is seeking monetary damages along with reinstatement as a professor.
But Buchanan’s lawsuit is about more than her job or her personal freedom of speech. It also threatens to bring down a major part of President Obama’s Title IX policy.
As noted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is supporting Buchanan’s lawsuit, the sexual harassment definition LSU used to fire Buchanan uses language identical to one the Department of Education has urged U.S. colleges to adopt since 2013. The definition classifies sexual harassment as any “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical behavior of a sexual nature.”
FIRE argues that the department’s definition is “breathtakingly broad” and amounts to an effort to force unconstitutional speech codes onto any college receiving federal money. Just about any speech of a remotely sexual nature, the group argues, could potentially be treated as harassment.
When defending its decision to fire Buchanan, LSU has explicitly claimed it is only following the guidance of the Department of Education.
“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,” FIRE Director of Litigation Catherine Sevcenko said in a press release. “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.”
LSU released a statement of its own defending its actions.
“We take our responsibility to protect students from abusive behavior very seriously, and we will vigorously defend our students’ rights to a harassment-free educational environment,” spokesman Ernie Ballard said in a statement.
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