August 15, 2001 (a Wednesday)

Education

On this date, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in Hardy v. Jefferson Community College, 260 F.3d 671 (6th Cir. 2001). Kenneth E. Hardy, a white adjunct professor at Jefferson Community College in Kentucky, had sued Richard Green, who was the college president, and Mary Pamela Besser, a dean, in their individual capacities in 1999 for violating his first-amendment rights after the college told him it was not renewing his appointment because “there were no courses available for him to teach.”  Interestingly, the administrators were represented by John G. Roberts, Jr., who became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in September, 2005.

Scales of Justice

Background. The professor had regularly taught two communication courses at the college, receiving outstanding student evaluations and strong supervisory reviews. During the professor’s fourth year, a black student complained to him about class discussions examining words used to demean minorities. The professor apologized to her for any discomfort the language may have caused her, but she complained to a local minister active in civil rights, who subsequently raised the matter with the college president. Although the administration had informed Hardy before this controversy that he was scheduled to teach three courses in the fall, the administration later did not renew his appointment, claiming no classes were available.

Decision. When the college tried to get Hardy’s suit dismissed, an appeals court ruled in the professor’s favor, recognizing the importance of academic freedom at community colleges by stating:

In balancing the competing interests involved, we must take into account the robust tradition of academic freedom in our nation’s post-secondary schools…The 1st Amendment tolerates neither laws nor other means of intimidation that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the free exchange of ideas in the classroom.

Perhaps most significant was the court’s unwritten holding that the First Amendment right of academic freedom applies to faculty members at public institutions, whether those faculty members are tenured or not.

In April of 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court let the ruling stand by refusing to hear the case. Roberts, the lawyer representing Mr. Green and Ms. Besser, trivialized the justices’ action, claiming it doesn’t mean that they think the lower court’s decision is wrong. “It just means that they don’t want to get involved,” he said.

Although Hardy died of lung cancer on June 8, 2002, Adrienne Regnier, his widow and a Jefferson College philosophy professor, continued with her husband’s case. “Ken was teaching about language and about how it can be used to abuse, to alienate, to oppress others,” said Regnier. “That was Ken’s lesson: that this is the worst word you can ever call anybody, that it’s worse than any other word you can think of.” Ironically, she believes her late husband and the Louisville civil-rights leader who spoke against him actually shared enormous common ground. Describing her late husband as a “rabid anti-racist” who routinely attended anti-Klan rallies, Regnier added, “Ken and (the civil rights leader) were on the very same side. But because of a knee-jerk reaction, at least some people are left with the mistaken impression that Ken was a racist.”

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