Case Study

Louisiana State University professor fired for using crude language


In 2015, Louisiana State University fired Teresa Buchanan, a tenured professor, because the university deemed that language she used in class was sexually inflected enough to create a hostile environment. Her offenses included saying “Fuck no” in class, making a joke about sex in long-term relationships, and using the word “pussy” off campus. Buchanan sued, asserting that Louisiana State based its decision to fire her on an overly expansive definition of sexual harassment shaped by federal guidance that oversteps the law. Citing the university’s own policies, Buchanan’s complaint read, “No suggestion has ever been made that Professor Buchanan engaged in any kind of ‘physical behavior of a sexual nature,’ ‘quid pro quo harassment,’ or ‘sexual discrimination’ of any kind.” Instead, it said, “the purported violations of LSU policies were based entirely on occasional comments that some later claimed offended them.” A federal judge dismissed the suit in 2018, and Buchanan unsuccessfully appealed the decision in 2019.

PEN America Analysis

Buchanan is a casualty of overbroad definitions of sexual harassment. While a 2011 Dear Colleague letter on Title IX from the Office of Civil Rights provides much needed protection to survivors of sexual assault and harassment, parts of the guidance go too far in expanding the definition of harassment, construing speech as conduct that can merit punishment and recognizing harm from subjectively offensive speech. A growing chorus of free speech advocates have criticized these guidelines on the basis of their potential to chill academic speech.

Further Reading