Appeals court's summary judgment upholds dismissal of once-tenured LSU professor

By Charmaine Little | Mar 29, 2019

NEW ORLEANS – A woman’s challenges against her former Louisiana State University superiors fell short as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th District upheld a summary judgment in the university’s favor on March 22.

Circuit Judge Jacques L. Wiener wrote the opinion. Justices Leslie H. Southwick and Gregg Costa concurred.

Teresa Buchanan sued the Board of Supervisors for Louisiana State University roughly a year and a half after being terminated from her tenured professorship. She was accused of using inappropriate language as she trained students seeking to become pre-kindergarten through third-grade teachers.

She also named President and Chancellor F. King Alexander in the lawsuit, as well as Damon Andrew, dean of the College of Human Sciences and Education; A.G. Moncaco, vice chancellor of the Office of Human Resource Management; and A.G. Moncao, the director of the Office of Human Resource Management and executive director of Equal Employment Opportunities for LSU.  

Justice Leslie H. Southwick  

In her lawsuit, Buchanan said the defendants infringed on her rights in the First Amendment (free speech and academic freedom) and and 14th Amendment rights (procedural and substantive due process). Buchanan also questioned the university’s sexual harassment policies. 

In 2013, Buchanan taught an Early Childhood Program for teacher education. A superintendent of a school district received complaints from her students when she visited schools in the superintendent’s district. For example, a student took issue with Buchanan’s alleged comments about the student’s intimate moments with her fiancé. Another student alleged Buchanan took footage of her crying to show in a team meeting. Buchanan was also accused of making controversial comments about the LGBTQ community and using “extreme profanity on a regular basis,” according to the opinion. 

Andrew ultimately informed Buchanan she would be removed from her classroom as human resources investigated the complaints. Her issues went before the faculty committee, who determined Buchanan should be dismissed as she violated the university’s sexual harassment policy and developed a “hostile learning environment.” She appealed and went before the board, who fired her.

She asked for her job back and declaratory and injunctive relief. She and the school both field motions for summary judgment, but the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana sided with the defendant, and Buchanan appealed. The appeals court confirmed the summary judgment for the defendants.

“We agree with the district court here that Dr. Buchanan’s use of profanity and discussion of her sex life and the sex lives of her students was not related to the subject matter or purpose of training pre-K through third grade teachers,” the appeals court determined. “This court held that, in the college classroom context, speech that does not serve an academic purpose is not of public concern.” 

Considering this, the school didn’t violate the First Amendment “as applied” to Buchanan since her speech isn’t considered protected under the law.

The appeals court also noted that Buchanan didn’t exclusively sue the group which fired her, which is the Board of Supervisors. She also sued employees and officials who didn’t have the authority to enforce the university’s regulations.

“Dr. Buchanan sued the wrong parties," the ruling said. "The board, therefore, is the only proper party defendant to a facial challenge to LSU’s policies.”

As all of her claims fell short, the appeals court said it didn’t need to evaluate the qualified immunity argument.

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