Monday, April 30, 2007

Do professors have "qualified immunity"? 

On Friday on Phi Beta Cons, David French posted the disappointing outcome of a suit he was trying to protect the rights of former Temple University student Christian DeJohn. French's version of the facts:

In late 2002, Christian was deployed overseas to serve as a peacekeeper in Bosnia. While overseas, Christian received a series of anti-war messages from a university listserv. While Christian didn�t dispute the right of professors or anyone else to protest the war in Afghanistan or the (at that time imminent) war in Iraq, he also didn�t want to receive such messages while in a hostile fire zone. At trial, Christian testified that he wrote back to his department chair and asked to be removed from the e-mail list.

When Christian returned home from Bosnia, he found that he had been expelled from the university. When Christian challenged the expulsion, the university re-admitted him, claiming computer error. What Christian didn�t realize (at the time) was that the attitude of two key professors � his department chair and academic advisor � had dramatically changed towards him.

In university e-mails, these professors variously described him (among other things) as a �fool or liar,� a �gnat,� �mentally unstable,� and �trained to kill by the U.S. Army.� The department chair hoped he�d �self destruct,� and his academic advisor (in a later message that attempted to justify his actions against Christian) claimed that Christian was �obsessed� with �liberal bias.� One of his professors even went so far as to urge the department chair contact key Temple alumni (individuals who would be in a position to hire Christian after he graduated) and tell them that Christian did not represent Temple�s �best and brightest.�

The lawyer for the two members of the history department is quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education (temp link, permalink for Chron subscribers) as finding Mr DeJohn a "marginal learner, barely passing" and that his masters thesis "flabbergasted" the faculty. So while French is certainly trying to bring out the worst of DeJohn's professors' behavior, they aren't exactly hiding their dislike for the student.

Two facts also bear notice: First off, Mr DeJohn was called a "peacekeeper", which I guess is the word of art for a sergeant in the National Guard who pulls overseas duty. So this is potentially retaliation against a member of our military. Second, Mr. DeJohn was someone who testified at Temple during the hearings surrounding Pennsylvania's inquiry into political bias and the possible need for an Academic Bill of Rights.

The judge threw this case out, though. He said there was no evidence that the chair had retaliated against the student -- a finding that I can't judge based on the information received -- but this from the Chronicle raised my eyebrows:
And the judge said that, while the jury may have discerned some evidence that Mr. Urwin had retaliated against Mr. DeJohn, the professor deserved "qualified immunity," which means that he behaved toward Mr. DeJohn in a way that could reasonably be seen as within his rights.
Excuse me? It is within one's rights to retaliate against a student? So if a student is retaliated against by a faculty member and can prove it in a court of law, a faculty member may nevertheless have some kind of immunity from prosecution for violating a student's due process rights?

French has indicated he may appeal the ruling. One hopes the rights of students will be upheld.