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Public university officials have ‘absolute immunity’ against lawsuits, state appeals court rules

‘A disastrous impact on civil liberties in higher education’

If you’re an administrator at a public institution in Indiana, now is the time to act on your grudges against students, staff and faculty.

The Indiana Court of Appeals issued a stunningly broad ruling that shields these state actors from any consequences when they violate the constitutional rights of people in the course of their duties.

Underlying the ruling in favor of Purdue University-Calumet is an extremely unsympathetic plaintiff, even among the ranks of First Amendment martyrs: Maurice Eisenstein.

The professor allegedly made repeated anti-Muslim statements and denigrated the suffering of other groups compared to the Jews in his classes, and belatedly tried to get the evidence thrown out as “inadmissible hearsay,” which the appeals court denied. (One student recorded his rants.)

But it was his alleged retaliation against two professors who filed complaints against him that got Eisenstein formally disciplined in the form of “letters of reprimand” in 2012. He was also cited for violating “civility standards” by inserting a link to his personal blog in his email signature; Eisenstein had made harsh allegations against a Muslim professor in a blog post.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education had originally intervened at Eisenstein’s request, and in a Tuesday blog post, legal fellow Zach Greenberg explains why the ruling is dangerous for anyone at an Indiana public school, not just jerks like Eisenstein.

By finding that administrators were no different from “judges, prosecutors, politicians and a smattering of other bureaucrats” who can’t be sued “when engaged in their official duties,” the appeals court ensured that the First Amendment is “dead letter on college campuses” in the state, Greenberg writes:

Shielding colleges administrators from suit eradicates any notion of accountability for even their most ridiculously flawed and egregious decisions. The possibility of getting hauled into court for infringing a student’s or professor’s First Amendment rights helps to ensure that these fundamental freedoms are protected on college campuses. This is why judges properly refuse to grant any form of immunity for state college administrators who violate the well-established rights of students or professors.

Such judicial cautiousness is well-warranted, as extending absolute immunity to college officials will have a disastrous impact on civil liberties in higher education. Any college administration could simply mask their determination in legalistic procedures to avoid liability for willful or grossly negligent First Amendment violations.

Eisenstein told the Indianapolis Star he is appealing the ruling.

Read the ruling and FIRE analysis.

MORE: Corrupt public university finally faces federal trial over censorship

IMAGE: donskarpo/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” Previously he led media and public relations at Seattle’s Discovery Institute, a free-market think tank. Greg is developing a Web series about a college newspaper, COPY, whose pilot episode was a semifinalist in the TV category for the Scriptapalooza competition in 2012. He graduated in 2001 with a B.A. from Seattle Pacific University, where he co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon.

Add to the Discussion

  • George Avery

    I was the victim of a Purdue department chair who SWAT’d me with a false police report to the campus police after I filed a grievance on campus of his screwing with my faculty contract to try to block me from even applying for tenure. The Dean would do nothing to rectify the damage he did, and research into the law made it clear there was no recourse in the courts. Indiana statutes make ALL public university employees “at will” employees, so no legal remedy existed. The University never pursued charges against him – the campus police took no action in response to my complaint.

    • Tatiana Covington

      So how’d it all come out?

  • Arnold F Williams

    Those who are unreachable by law, outside the law, have another name: “outlaws.” That was the original impetus for such public eruptions as “tar & feathers” — to shame someone beyond the reach of the law. It was more civilized than killing them.

  • xenonman

    If they’re to be made immune from accountability, then campus police agencies (particularly at public universities) should be given more limited authority, as a countermeasure!

  • rnagel

    Take them into Federal court. This ruling has no effect on federal law, just state law.

  • Unmutual One

    Slowly but surely creating a protected class that is above the law.

  • Killer Marmot

    The professor allegedly made repeated anti-Muslim statements and denigrated the suffering of other groups compared to the Jews in his classes

    And what constitutional rights were alleged to be violated?