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ACLU sues Purdue trustees over tenure law

The plaintiffs are two professors at Purdue University Fort Wayne. They say the new law violates their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Lucinda Larnach / WFIU-WTIU
The plaintiffs are two professors at Purdue University Fort Wayne. They say the new law violates their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana is suing Purdue over a state law passed this year that many academics say dismantles tenure.

Thought the suit is directed at the Purdue Board of Trustees, ACLU attorney Stevie Pactor hopes its constitutional challenge will stay the law itself.

“Every statute like this that requires a state actor to take some action has a specific enforcement mechanism,” Pactor explained. “The way that this type of civil rights litigation works is that you have to sue the entity that's responsible for enforcing the law.”

Senate Enrolled Act 202 makes it possible for university trustees to revoke tenure and punish professors if they fail to expose students to material from “a variety of political or ideological frameworks.”

The law’s supporters say it will only require professors to teach material with academic merit, but professors fear its ambiguity would require them to give debunked theories equal time in the classroom.

The plaintiffs are two professors at Purdue University Fort Wayne: Steven A. Carr, professor of communication and director of the Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and David G. Schuster, an associate professor of history. They say that by ambiguously mandating certain types of instruction, these new requirements violate their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

“Do we want in public higher education to constantly be looking over our shoulders, because we fear that someone else is watching what we teach in the classroom?” Carr asked.

He then explained the problem as he saw it with an analogy from Indiana history.

“Indiana was the first state in the nation to pass an eugenics law that required compulsory sterilization,” he said. “There is no way in a classroom that I can present forced sterilization of people within the framework of eugenics as being in any ways legitimate.”

The suit mentions another provision of SEA 202 that would allow any student or employee of a university to submit a complaint about any faculty member they believe is violating the law.

“That's the mechanism by which these issues are likely to arise, resulting in this kind of discipline,” Pactor said. “So while there's no freestanding challenge to those provisions, they certainly are part and parcel of the operation of the statute that that is being challenged.”

As a senate bill, the legislation drew protests from universities across the state. IU President Pamela Whitten said the bill threatens the economic and cultural vitality of Indiana and the status of its schools.

Pactor added that the timing of this lawsuit shortly after a First Amendment challenge to Indiana University and coinciding with widespread student protests is coincidental.

“We wanted to make sure we got the lawsuit on file to give the federal court enough time to give adequate consideration to our request for preliminary injunction before the law takes effect on July 1,” she said.

Purdue spokesperson Tim Doty declined to comment on the suit.