On April 1, 2008, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that a professor could not sue two students who filed harassment complaints against him with their university. Based upon an internal investigation of the student complaints, the university determined that the professor had harassed students and created a hostile educational environment. The university immediately removed the professor from any supervisory contact with students and assigned him to a 100% research position off campus for the remaining year of his contract. After losing his suit against the university, the professor sued the two students for libel, slander, and interfering with his employment contract.
The Indiana Supreme Court held that students filing such complaints have an absolute immunity from suit. The Court said that a university need not follow “quasi-judicial” procedures such as oaths, subpoenas, and discovery to protect its students from suit. Rather, the Court held that as long as the institution’s internal process “is reasonably transparent and fair and affords the subject an opportunity to respond,” students are immune from suit.
The Court explained that providing any protection less than absolute immunity from suit could “chill some legitimate complaints for fear of retaliatory litigation.” Giving the university latitude to “tailor its process to the educational environment” was important because educational institutions are “the best judge of whether these classroom activities are a legitimate teaching method or constitute discrimination, harassment or the establishment of a hostile environment.” In short, the Court’s opinion in Hartman v. Keri, 883 N.E.2d 774 (Ind. 2008), seeks to encourage academic process over legal process as the best means to resolve such disputes.