Ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment in a lawsuit against a state university by a tenured professor who was suspended after an investigation of classroom conduct and statements brought to light by student complaints, Senior U.S. District Judge James T. Moody ruled that the 1st Amendment did not protect, inter alia, certain statements the professor made about homosexuality. Poulard v. Trustees of Indiana University, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167617 (N.D. Ind., Sept. 28, 2018).
Jean Poulard has taught political science at Indiana University Northwest Campus (IUN) for more than 30 years, earning tenure in 1990. On June 1, 2015, Gianluca DiMuzio, then chair of the political science department, in which capacity he looked at student course evaluations of department faculty, communicated to Ida Gillis, then Director of Affirmative Action for IUN, student evaluation comments raising concerns about Professor Poulard’s behavior and statements in the classroom. The student comment that first raised a red flag was that Poulard would “frequently voice his racist and sexist views” and that he was “obscenely flirtatious with his female students, often saying perverted things.”
Prof. Di Muzio also commented that he had personally observed Poulard kissing students on the hand and cheek. Gillis and DiMuzio extended their investigation over several years of student evaluations, uncovering a variety of incendiary classroom comments attributed to Poulard, among them a student writing, “I took great offense when he stated how wrong and disgusting it is to be gay and how terrible and messed up a child with same sex parents is going to be in the head.” There was also a statement that “black people were destroying Chicago and his solution to crime would be a weekly hanging.”
When confronted with these statements in the ensuing disciplinary proceeding, Poulard denied making some statements, softened others (such as claiming he spoke in favor of capital punishment, not weekly hangings), but did not deny hugging and kissing students or his comments about gay people and gay parents.
Gillis wrote a report, supplemented by Di Muzio’s complaint, which was presented to the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, who concluded that Poulard had violated the University’s Sexual Misconduct Code and Code of Academic Ethics, suspending him for a month without pay, placing a letter of reprimand in his personnel file, and requiring him to complete the University’s sexual misconduct training.
Poulard brought a federal suit, claiming breach of his tenured employment contract as well as violations of his constitutional rights to due process and freedom of speech. Judge Moody found that material fact disputes about when the University began to include a disclaimer of contractual effect in its Academic Handbook precluded summary judgment on the breach of contract claim, but rejected the due process claim, finding that the procedures leading up to the Vice Chancellor’s ruling comported with standards of procedural fairness.
As to the First Amendment claim, and particularly the comments about gays and gay parents, Moody found no 1st Amendment protection for Poulard’s remarks. Although some of his statements, for example, “regarding gays, Muslims, and African Americans and crime, could potentially be matters of public concern,” wrote Moody, that was only one factor in applying the Supreme Court’s Pickering standard governing public employee speech, especially as applied in the 7th Circuit under Piggee v Carl Sandburg College, 464 F. 3d 667 (2006). “Applying a balancing test,” he wrote, “the Seventh Circuit found that the instructor’s interest in making comments regarding religion and homosexuality were not protected when balanced against the school’s interest in the instructor’s adherence to the subject matter of the course she was hired to teach (which in that case was cosmetology).”
Moody continued, “In the case at hand, [Vice Chancellor] McPhail specifically restricted plaintiff’s speech out of concern for ‘developing among students respect for others and their opinions.’ The court agrees with McPhail that IUN had strong interests in restricting plaintiff’s statements in order to preserve respect for the student body, harmony among the IUN population, and to prevent the exclusion and isolation of the minorities targeted by plaintiff’s speech. McPhail also concluded that the statements were not germane to the topic of the class. However, plaintiff argues that his case can be distinguished from Piggee on this issue, because, since he teaches a political science course, his statements and comments were within the scope of the course. The court disagrees.”
“It is true that the teacher in Piggee taught cosmetology which was even further off topic from the instructor’s speech,” Moody explained. “However, here, plaintiff’s course was a course involving Latin American politics, an issue that was not addressed in any of the statements at issue. Second, the court recognizes that faculty members have some right to engage in academic debates, pursuits, and inquiries. And being a political science course should give professors some leeway to delve into topical or hot-button social and political issues. However, statements about gays being ‘disgusting,’ criticizing religious (Muslim) clothing, and asserting that African Americans should be ‘hung,’ are not topical statements and do not invoke hot-button issues. They sound much more like harassing statements that IUN has a strong interest in eliminating in order to foster an inclusive learning environment for all students, including gays, Muslims, and African Americans. Accordingly, when performing the Pickering balancing test, the court concludes that the interests of IUN outweigh Poulard’s interests.” Thus, the court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the 1st Amendment free speech claim. Judge Moody also found that a separate free speech claim under the Indiana Constitution could be resolved on the same analysis.
Judge Moody was appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan.