On January 11, a Federal District Judge in Louisiana rendered a decision that should worry all educators in the country, K through college, especially if that decision sets legal precedent. U. S. District Judge Shelly Dick upheld the firing of Prof. Teresa Buchanan on the grounds of Title IX “sexual assault.” Her crime? The professor sometimes uses pedagogical profanity in the classroom.
The professor’s argument was that at times she wanted to create in the classroom the blackboard-jungle environment that the students would have to teach in. How would these kids as teachers handle a rough, tough classroom? Had the professor shown the movie “Blackboard Jungle,” a rough movie in the classroom, would that have constituted Title IX sexual assault? And just how precisely is that assault sexual in nature? Buchanan said, “I wasn’t socialized into ‘education speak.’” She was not the saccharine, Southern-belle type, saying she wanted to jolt students to consider classroom issues they hadn’t considered. Not a single student ever accused her of sexual harassment. She had tenure and had taught at LSU for 19 years.
LSU President F. King Alexander, in today’s zeitgeist, wanted to provide “safe spaces” for LSU’s students, wanted to coddle them, wanted to protect the fragile “snowflakes” who would melt if encountering rough speech. He actually said as much: “As we have stated many times, we take our responsibility to protect students, faculty and staff and to ensure they have a safe educational and harassment-free environment very seriously.”
Judge Dick ruled that Prof. Buchanan’s pedagogical method was not acceptable, arguing: Buchanan’s classroom methods “do not constitute First Amendment protected speech, are not matters of public concern, and are not, as claimed by the Plaintiff, part of her overall pedagogical strategy for teaching preschool and elementary education to students as there is no . . . evidence to support such a claim.”
There are two fatal flaws with the judge’s argument: one, when it come to pedagogical methods in the classroom, the judge is totally out of her league, no more qualified to make such a judgment than, say, Donald Trump. Two, how precisely is Prof. Buchanan’s pedagogy “sexual” in nature? How precisely does it violate Title IX? The judge here is rendering a political, social decision, not a legal one.
If the judge’s ruling sets legal precedent, that is especially troubling to me as a college trustee. Our college has a Title IX policy that I believe is exemplary in terms of free speech. Judge Dick and President Alexander, I suspect, would take issue with our definition. It reads at the conclusion: Speakers may not be disruptive, but “disruptive does not include action that merely presents the possibility of discomfort or unpleasantness that often accompanies unpopular viewpoints. Furthermore, the college will not . . . infringe on any right or free speech or expression guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.”
Judge Dick and President Alexander, on the other hand, want to protect college kids from opinions that are unpleasant, in this case calling Prof. Buchanan’s pedagogical methods “sexual” assault. It is a wide stretch by any measure.
An LSU faculty committee after a 12-hour hearing voted not to terminate Prof. Buchanan, and the Faculty Senate censured President Alexander and top administrators. Similarly, the American Association of University Professors censured the LSU president and top administrators for denying academic freedom to Prof. Buchanan. These two groups know far more about classroom pedagogy and free speech than President Alexander or Judge Dick.
We must recall the words of Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and William O Douglas. Scalia observed, “If you stop speech that hurts other peoples’ feelings, the First Amendment will become a dead letter.” Similarly, Alito opined when he was an appellate judge: “There is no ‘harassment exception’ in the First Amendment’s free speech clause.” And Douglas said, “The function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute.”