Judge dismisses several claims, but allows LSU student's suit to continue

LOUISIANA — A federal judge dismissed portions of astudent’s lawsuit against Louisiana State University but allowed him topursue claims alleging the school’s handling of a harassment investigationviolated his rights to free speech and due process of law.

Judge John Parker of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District ofLouisiana left intact what plaintiff Patrick Esfeller says are the “corevalues” of his case, including claims that the university’s”vague and overbroad” regulations violated the First Amendment.

One student code of conduct regulation he was charged under prohibits”extreme, outrageous or persistent acts, or communications that areintended or reasonably likely to harass, intimidate, harm, or humiliateanother.”

The judge also allowed Esfeller to pursue claims that the universityviolated his right to due process. The school accused Esfeller of”committing an act or an attempting to commit an act on campus that wouldbe in violation of city, parish, state or federal law.” Esfeller contendsthat officials failed to give him notice of the specific laws or rules he hadallegedly broken, making it impossible for him to defend himself.

Officials with the university’s Office of Judicial Affairs opened thecase against Esfeller in November 2006 when they began investigating accusationsthat he was harassing his ex-girlfriend, who also attended the school. Theycharged him with four counts of non-academic misconduct.

But according to the lawsuit, the investigating authorities failed tointerview any of Esfeller’s witnesses before proposing sanctions, andEsfeller also claims officials threatened that any attempt to make the judicialproceedings public could result in additional charges. He had met with staffersfrom The Daily Reveille, the student newspaper, to discuss his allegedmistreatment.

The school opened a second investigation in response to Esfeller’sconcerns about the fairness of the first inquiry, but the hearing panel convenedduring the summer when Esfeller was unable to attend because of work. Thatcompromised the result and was a further violation of his due process rights,Esfeller said.

“I felt like the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment due processstuff were the ultimate elements that needed to stick, because I just hope thatno one will ever have to go through what I’ve gone through,”Esfeller said.

The judge dismissed several claims in the May 30 ruling, includingallegations that the university violated the Federal Education Rights andPrivacy Act by revealing information about the results of his hearing to hisex-girlfriend, and that it violated the Sixth Amendment by barringEsfeller’s attorney from the disciplinary proceedings.

The court dismissed all claims against the university’s Board ofSupervisors, as well as claims seeking monetary damages from then-ChancellorSean O’Keefe, because the 11th Amendment bars a state’s citizensfrom suing the state or its agencies for money damages in federal courts.

However, the court allowed Esfeller to continue seeking an injunctionagainst the chancellor’s office. If Esfeller succeeds on his remainingclaims, he could win attorney fees and an injunction barring school officialsfrom violating his rights.

Esfeller said he is filing a new lawsuit this week in state court in thehope of winning monetary damages.

K.C. White, the associate vice chancellor and dean of students at LouisianaState University, said she was not familiar with the most recent legaldevelopments in the case, but wholeheartedly stood by the university’scode of conduct.

The most recent revisions to the code occurred in 2002, and the universityhas been in the process of revising the document for the last year, justrecently passing it on to legal counsel for overview, White said.

“I do not agree in any way shape or form that our code of conductviolates the First Amendment,” White said. “I think that’swhat is most important in any judicial affairs office is the fundamentalfairness that is extended to our students.”

CORRECTION, July 2: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story’s headline misstated Patrick Esfeller’s enrollment status.

Also, an earlier version of the article mischaracterized Dean of Students K.C. White’s remarks. In a subsequent e-mail to the SPLC, White said her comments did not speak specifically to claims of vagueness or unfairness in the existing or proposed conduct codes.

The SPLC regrets the errors.