In an amicus brief filed on Friday, the AAUP emphasized the importance of faculty being able to use controversial language and ideas to challenge students in the classroom, and argued that Professor Teresa Buchanan’s academic freedom was violated when Louisiana State University dismissed her for making statements in the classroom that the university improperly characterized as sexual harassment.
The brief explains that sexual harassment policies, particularly those focused on speech, must be narrowly drawn and sufficiently precise to ensure that their provisions do not infringe on rights of free speech and academic freedom. In public universities, these policies must meet constitutional standards under the First Amendment. LSU’s policies, and their application to the facts, failed this test.
The case originated when, in 2014, LSU’s Office of Human Resource Management found Buchanan guilty of sexual harassment based solely on her occasional use of profanity and sexually explicit language with her students, despite the fact that Buchanan did not use language in a sexual context and instead employed it to further educational objectives. Buchanan’s dean recommended her dismissal, and has stated that he did not condone “any practices where sexual language and profanity are used educating students.”
Subsequently, a faculty hearing committee recommended unanimously against the dismissal of Buchanan. While the committee faulted her for having violated LSU’s policies on sexual harassment by her occasional use of “profanity, poorly worded jokes, and sometimes sexually explicit ‘jokes’ in her methodologies,” it found no evidence that this behavior was “systematically directed at any particular individual.” Despite this, Buchanan was dismissed.
Professor Buchanan filed suit against the school, arguing that LSU’s sexual harassment policy violated her First Amendment rights because it was vague and overbroad both facially and as applied in her case, and that her due process rights were violated. The district court ruled against her, Buchanan appealed, and the AAUP filed an amicus brief in support of her appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
The use of provocative ideas and language to engage students, and to enliven the learning process, is well within the scope of academic freedom and is protected by the First Amendment. Many things a professor says may “offend” or even “intimidate” some students. If every such statement could lead to formal sanctions, and possibly even loss of employment, the pursuit of knowledge and the testing of ideas in the college classroom would be profoundly chilled.
The AAUP recognizes the importance of combating sexual harassment and has long emphasized that there is no necessary contradiction between a university’s obligation to address problems of sexual harassment effectively and its duty to protect academic freedom. To achieve these dual goals, hostile environment policies, particularly those focused on speech alone, must be narrowly drawn and sufficiently precise to ensure that their provisions do not infringe on First Amendment rights of free speech and academic freedom.
You can read the full brief here.
General Counsel, AAUP
Senior Counsel, AAUP
P.S. If you’d like to support AAUP’s legal work, you can donate to the AAUP Foundation today.