“Sue the Bastards” at Your University – Judge Says It’s OK; Campus Officials Are Personally Liable For Infringing Student Constitutional Rights
WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 2, 2019) – A federal court judge has held that students whose First Amendment rights are violated can hold not only the University of Iowa [UI] financially liable, but also several of its key employees – in this case the vice president for student life, the associate dean of student organizations, and the coordinator for student organization development.
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Constitutional Rights Case Precedent
While not unprecedented - several courts have held university presidents and other top officials personally liable before - the law suit imposing liability on even lower level employees can and should serve as a strong deterrent and warning against violations of the Constitution by all employees of state colleges and universities, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf.
Federal Judge Stephanie M. Rose initially issued an injunction against UI because it violated the rights to free speech, freedom of association, and freedom of religious exercise of a Christian student group called Business Leaders in Christ for de-recognizing it because its "statement of faith" bans those in LGBTQ relationships from leadership roles.
But this didn't impose financial liability upon any specific individuals involved because they all enjoyed a qualified immunity from liability unless the "knew or should have known" that their actions were unconstitutional.
However, when the same officials did virtually the same thing to another Christian student group, InterVarsity, the individuals who were actively involved in the de-recognizing process clearly knew or should have known that it was unconstitutional from the judge's initial ruling, and therefore lost their immunity.
Even if the University were to pay any financial awards against them - which employees should not count on - being held liable for violating the constitutional rights of students, especially after the employees had been put on notice that this conduct was illegal, can adversely affect a person's ability get a job elsewhere, as well as their credit rating, says Banzhaf, who notes that their privacy may also be invaded if they are required to testify under oath and/or produce emails and other documents.
Vice presidents, deans, and other officials might not be deterred from trampling on the constitutional rights of students over concerns that their university itself might be sued, but the prospect of having personal financial liability imposed - for which they may or may not be fully reimbursed by their university - should serve as a strong deterrent to illegally depriving students of fundamental constitutional rights, suggests Banzhaf.
Whether it involves free speech, religious freedoms, or due process in hearings concerning alleged rape, judges are showing that they are increasingly willing to hold both the institutions and even individual employees liable, says Banzhaf, who has defended such rights on his own campus, and counsels others about how to most effectively sue universities.
In short, the old motto of "Sue The Bastards" can apply even when the ""bastards" are university employees simply carrying out university policy, says Banzhaf.