News Articles

Settlement reached in La. lawsuit profs filed against conservatives

PINEVILLE, La. (BP)–After months of negotiation and extended deadlines, the lawsuit of four Louisiana College professors against the “conservative resurgency” group in the state has been settled. The out-of-court settlement comes about 20 months after the suit was filed. In the suit, the four professors charged that letters distributed in 1995 by Leon Hyatt of Pineville and the Louisiana Baptists Speaking the Truth in Love group were defamatory and derogatory and meant to harm their professional and moral reputations. The four professors are Carlton Winbery, Fred Downing, James Heath and Connie Douglas. The letters were part of an effort by the Louisiana Baptists: Speaking the Truth in Love group to call Louisiana College and the state convention “back to its biblical and moral roots.” That group organized in May 1995 with adoption of a covenant document and four goals, two of which were directed at Louisiana College. Almost immediately, the group began to distribute a packet of letters from people citing various concerns about what they had experienced at Louisiana College. The letters cited a range of past incidents at the college and named several professors. Details about how to receive the packet were published in the Louisiana Baptists: Speaking the Truth in Love newsletter. Although the letters began to be distributed in the summer of 1995, it was not until June 1996 that the four Louisiana College professors filed suit against Hyatt and the group. The professors said they filed the suit after months of unsuccessful efforts to resolve the issue through non-legal means. Hyatt’s attorney sought to have the suit dismissed on church-state grounds, insisting the courts should not involve themselves in an ecclesiastical matter. However, an Alexandria judge declined that request, saying the case does not fall under the protection of the First Amendment. That ruling was upheld by both a state appeals court and the state Supreme Court. Those rulings cleared the way for a jury trial in the matter, and attorneys for the professors continued to conduct depositions of several people involved with the “conservative resurgency” group. Soon after the Supreme Court ruling last spring, however, the possibility of an out-of-court settlement began to be discussed by Louisiana Baptist leaders. According to released documents, attorneys for the professors were approached by attorneys for Hyatt and others about that possibility. Late last summer, it appeared the issue would be settled by the time of the fall state convention. Details could not be worked out, however. Later, it appeared matters would be resolved in the early days of 1998. Again, expectations went unmet. Finally, however, agreement was reached, with settlement forms being signed by both sides of the issue in the closing days of February. Documents were delivered to the court in ensuing days to facilitate official settlement. Terms of the settlement include: — Payment of $40,000 in attorney fees for the professors from a fund donated by Louisiana Baptists leaders for that purpose. Payment of attorney fees for the defendants also was made from the fund, although a dollar amount is not listed in the settlement document. — an apology letter from Hyatt to each of the professors. In the letter, Hyatt concludes: “acknowledge that my actions in the letter writing campaign on behalf of Louisiana Baptists: Speaking the Truth in Love caused you harm, and I sincerely apologize for the personal and professional hurt that you experienced.” — approval of a contract by Louisiana College trustees affirming the four professors for their past dedication and commitment to the college and assuring them no “adverse action” would be taken against them as a result of the lawsuit. The contract stipulates this includes such things as termination, suspension, reprimand, reduction of salary and public criticism. In the contract, the professors also offer a covenant pledge that their teaching will uphold and recognize the authority and divine inspiration of Scripture, will be tolerant of differing students’ views and supportive of student needs in that area and will be consistent with official college statements on teacher responsibility and academic freedom. — release of the deposition of Rick Henson of Lecompte, who has served as editor of the Louisiana Baptists: Speaking the Truth in Love newsletter. In the deposition, Henson said as editor of the newsletter he did not seek to verify the accuracy of the distributed letters or to contact the professors for their response to the comments made in the letters. Henson said that would have been the fair thing to do. He also acknowledged he had told Downing and Winbery they had been wronged by the letters. The letters were not printed in the newsletter edited by Henson, but they were promoted in that publication. — release of Hyatt, the Louisiana Baptists: Speaking the Truth in Love group and any insurers of those from “any and all claims” in the suit. Documents stipulate the settlement agreement “constitutes a complete compromise of a disputed claim and that the payments acknowledged herein are solely for the purpose of putting an end to litigation and is in no way an admission of liability by anyone.”

    About the Author

  • C. Lacy Thompson