George Mason professor sues after sanctions for sex talk

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — A prominent George Mason University professor who studies the link between happiness and human sexuality is suing the school, saying he was wrongly punished for frank sexual discussions with students that prompted complaints.

Psychology professor Todd Kashdan filed the lawsuit in 2019. A judge in U.S. District court in Alexandria dismissed the suit last month, but Kashdan is appealing to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

Kashdan acknowledged in the lawsuit that he spoke about his own personal exploits in class, describing his sexual encounter with a woman who insisted that others watch the sex act. He also admitted inviting his grad students to his home for a party in which they all sat in a hot tub while he described his experiences in a German brothel.

Kashdan, though, maintains that such talk was entirely appropriate for a teacher whose topics include human sexuality.

The public sex act, he said, was an example of exhibitionism and “fit into Plaintiff’s pedagogical approach of utilizing examples, stories, case studies, and interesting scientific research so that students better understand and remember what they are being taught,” Kashdan’s lawyers said in the lawsuit.

The hot tub party, he said, should be viewed no differently than a swimming pool.

Kashdan was named George Mason’s Faculty of the Year winner in 2010, and his research on a variety of topics has received significant publicity. In 2017, he was featured in a variety of popular media after conducting a study of 152 undergraduates that found, perhaps unsurprisingly, a link between sexual activity and happiness.

Kashdan did not return a call or email seeking comment.

Last year, Kashdan’s Well-being Laboratory at George Mason received $1.1 million in funding from the libertarian Charles Koch Foundation to “study ways to improve open-minded discourse in a polarized society,” the university said in a news release.

George Mason receives tens of millions of dollars annually from the foundation, more than any school in the U.S., and critics have alleged that money influences what is taught at the school.

Samantha Parsons, a former GMU student and a spokeswoman for UnKoch My Campus, said Kashdan’s work fits into the Koch rubric in two significant ways.

First, she said “well-being initiatives” like the one for which Kashdan has worked at GMU are a favorite project of the Koch machine. Often, these programs link well-being with economic freedom, she said, which fits into Koch’s libertarian agenda.

Another favorite policy point for Koch is free speech and civic discourse, like the $1.1 million provided by the foundation to Kashdan’s lab last year. She said the Koch Foundation and other conservatives are primarily concerned about left-wing protesters who disrupt speeches from right-wing provocateurs.

The Koch free-speech movement, she said, “is focused on punishing college students who stand up to hate speech,” Parsons said.

Kashdan never lost his teaching position at the university, where he holds full tenure, but after multiple students complained, Kashdan said he was required to undergo sexual harassment training, denied a pay raise and restricted in his ability to supervise grad students. In his lawsuit, Kashdan said those punishments hampered his teaching and inhibited his free speech.

U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady dismissed Kashdan’s lawsuit on April 23. He also rejected Kashdan’s request to proceed anonymously, which forced Kashdan to identify himself publicly in his subsequent appeal.

O’Grady said Kashdan’s free-speech rights do not prevent his employer from sanctioning him. The judge also ruled that the sanctions imposed on Kashdan were not so severe as to require a remedy from the courts.

A university spokesman, Michael Sandler, said the dismissal “confirms that the university handled this matter in accordance with the law.” In court papers the school’s lawyers argued Kashdan admitted to the misconduct for which he was sanctioned.

Kashdan “admits that he … shared stories with graduate students about his personal sexual experiences, asked a graduate student about her pornography preferences, visited a strip club with students, and spent time in a hot tub with students talking about his experience at a brothel. The outcome of the investigation cannot be ‘erroneous’ when the Plaintiff admits that the key underlying factual findings are correct,” the school’s lawyers wrote.

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