Jim Dey | #@%&$! Profane speech in class isn't protected

Jim Dey | #@%&$! Profane speech in class isn't protected

Teresa Buchanan's edgy pedagogical style — lots of profanity and sexual innuendoes — worked well until it didn't.

After she started teaching in the education department at Louisiana State University in 1995, Buchanan published articles in top academic journals and pursued research in educating young children. Things went fine, and before the roof fell in, Buchanan was in line for a promotion to full professor.

But her predilection* for pushing the rhetorical envelope — both in class and in teacher-student interactions — was soon to be her undoing.

One friend said Buchanan was oblivious to how her words sounded to other people, particularly the young women she embarrassed, the students she insulted and the veteran teachers she demeaned.

"... it's like when I said she doesn't have a filter. She just doesn't realize what sometimes she says, how it sounds. She doesn't mean it the way, you know, it sounds sometimes," said LSU colleague Karen Donnelly.

Depending on your perspective, Buchanan is either one of the latest victims of relentless skirmishes over academic freedom on campus or another classroom loudmouth who made it a point to step beyond the bounds of propriety.

The American Association of University Professors recently announced it's filing a friend-of-the-court brief in Buchanan's appeal of a lower federal court decision upholding her 2015 dismissal.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization devoted to protecting campus speech rights, also is backing her lawsuit.

But so far, Buchanan is on the outside looking in, dismissed from a long-held job and a loser in the first round of her court case.

Dismissed on the grounds she violated LSU's sexual-harassment policy, Buchanan alleged her comments did not constitute sexual harassment, and the university's investigation of her conduct violated her right to academic freedom. Further, she defended her freely admitted conduct, arguing that her coarse language was designed to "loosen up" students.

Conversely, what Buchanan characterized as language used to "loosen up" those with whom she was speaking often had precisely the opposite effect. As a pre-K through third-grade specialist, Buchanan was barred from some school districts.

LSU officials were informed that some schools didn't not want her to interact with their student-teachers. Many students avoided her classes to avoid Buchanan's polarizing teaching style.

After an LSU faculty recommended that Buchanan be censured and counseled about improving her classroom conduct — not dismissed — the LSU administration fired her anyway.

Buchanan sued, and, ultimately, her case was heard by U.S. Judge Shelly Dick, an appointee of former President Barack Obama. Dick affirmed LSU's decision to fire Buchanan, finding that her language was sufficient reason for LSU to part ways with Buchanan.

Boiled down to its essence, Dick ruled that Buchanan's speech was not "protected," and there was no violation of her academic freedom.

Why?

Academic freedom, Dick ruled, refers to the "right of an individual faculty member to teach" without interference from the administration or fellow teachers.

But resolving that issue pertains to the type of speech involved, and it addresses "a matter of public concern" or is it purely personal.

It's a balancing test — whether the importance of what Buchanan had to say outweighs the university's interest in suppressing it.

Dick found that Buchanan's "use of profanity and discussions regarding her own sex life and the sex lives of the students in the classroom do not constitute First Amendment protected speech, are not matters of public concern and are not, as claimed by (Buchanan) part of her overall pedagogical strategy for teaching preschool and elementary education to students."

Interestingly, she cited a variety of cases involving the dismissal of profane professors who painted the air blue one too many times.

There was the economics professor at Midland College. He expressed profane outrage when students complained he used too much profanity.

"The attitude of this class sucks ... you may think economics is a bunch of (expletive deleted). ... If you don't like the way I teach this (expletive deleted) class, there is the door."

After being fired, he sued. But a federal judge found that "To the extent that Martin's profanity was considered by the college administration to inhibit his effectiveness as a teacher, it need not be tolerated by the college."

Buchanan's lawyers argued, among other things, that it was a constitutional violation for her to be construed as in violation of what it calls LSU's exceedingly vague sexual harassment policy. Whatever merit there is to the claim that the policy is vague, Dick found the issue irrelevant because Buchanan's language is not protected speech because it "did not involve a matter of public concern."

"As such, it is unnecessary for the court to scrutinize the reason for the discipline," the judge wrote.

* — Word of the day: "Predilection" means a preconceived liking, partiality or preference.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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