Sunday, February 22, 2009

Christian student kept no hard copy of controversial speech

(H/T Raw Story)

LOS ANGELES, California (Observer Update) - Rachel Oswald of Raw Story reported that a Christian legal alliance representing a student who claims his First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion were violated by a college professor says that media reports are mischaracterizing the student's class speech as being anti-gay marriage but claims there is no hard copy of the speech and won't allow the student to be interviewed.

Los Angeles Community College student Jonathan Lopez filed a lawsuit last week against the Los Angeles Community College District in the U.S. District Court of Los Angeles after his professor, John Matteson, allegedly called him a “fascist bastard” when he gave a speech critical of gay marriage in November to his public speech class. According to a report by The Los Angeles Times he is seeking financial damages and an end to the college’s sexual harassment code that bars students from making “offensive” statements. He is being represented by Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian legal law organization.

Ronald Collins, a scholar with the First Amendment Center in Washington, DC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group, told Raw Story he is “ inclined to support [Lopez’s] free speech and religious liberty claim,” but that "the devil is in the details" of the case.

Collins said there is a difference between speech that is "respectfully critical" of another set of views and speech that is derogatory and offensive. Whether Lopez’s speech falls into the first category or the second could determine how his case is viewed in court he said.

Raw Story has learned that there is no actual copy of the speech Lopez, gave to his public speech class, which likely means that the testimony of other students will prove key to the success of his lawsuit.

Greg Scott, director of Media Relations for Alliance Defense Fund, said Lopez did not write out his speech before giving it to his class.

Because there is no physical copy of Lopez’s speech, the lawsuit may involve the subpoenaing of students from the class to testify on what they heard Lopez say. During the discovery process of the case Alliance said they would “question everyone that we need to question to prove the truth of the allegations in the complaint.”

Scott also said Lopez’s speech has been mischaracterized in media reports thus far. In an e-mail, he described it as an “informative speech about how God has changed his life through His Word. Marriage was a peripheral issue. He didn’t use any Bible verses that touched on marriage or homosexual behavior at all.”

However, some students in Lopez's class take a different view of the speech. According to the contents of a December letter between Allison Jones, dean of academic affairs for the college, and Alliance, two students have come forward with statements signed by several members of the public speech class. Rather than backing up Lopez’s accounting of events, the students “were deeply offended by his speech.”

One of the students stated that "His speech was not of the informative style that our assignment called for, but rather a preachy, persuasive speech that was completely inappropriate and deeply offensive. I respect his right to freedom of speech, but I also do not believe that our classroom is the proper platform for him to spout his hateful propaganda."

The second student said, “I don’t know what kind of actions can be taken in this situation, but I expect that this student should have to pay some price for preaching hate in the classroom."

Lopez is presently declining media interviews but Alliance did release a statement from him.

“Colleges are supposed to be safe for free speech and the discussion of many ideas. What has happened to me is an assault on my constitutional rights,” said Lopez in the statement. “A victory in this case will guarantee that every student who attends the school now and in the future is allowed to freely express their beliefs, religious or otherwise, without fear.”

According to Alliance, when Lopez tried to find out his grade for the speech, Matteson told him to "Ask God what your grade is."

Alliance also says that in an earlier class incident, Matteson told the class that, “If you voted ‘yes’ on Proposition 8, you are a fascist bastard.” When he learned Lopez had complained about his actions to Jones, the college’s dean of academic affairs, the professor allegedly told Lopez “he would find a way to get him expelled.”

According to a press fact sheet on the events leading up to the case, Lopez’s speech included reciting the dictionary’s definition of marriage.

Alliance provided Raw Story with the Bible quotes Lopez reportedly used in his speech. They are Romans 10:9 – “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” and Matthew 22:37-38 – “And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the great and first commandment.”

According to the complaint filed by Alliance, which is available here, Jones and the college’s president, Dr. Jamillah Moore, failed to protect Lopez’s constitutional rights and accused him of hate speech. The president, dean and Matteson were named in the lawsuit along with the Los Angeles Community College District.

“The district, acting through its trustees and administrators, also enforces a vague and overbroad speech code that chills protected student speech by conditioning punishment on the subjective reactions of listeners,” reads the complaint. “This speech code is enforced, in part, through a system of reporting that encourages students to file complaints about their fellow students whenever those students utter words or engage in actions deemed subjectively ‘offensive’ or ‘harassing.’”

In the December letter to Alliance, Jones said she followed the proper course of action in dealing with Lopez’s complaint by asking him to file supporting documentation from other students in the class that would back up his account of his harassment at the hands of Matteson. Instead of providing these additional student accounts however, Jones says Lopez made the choice to involve Alliance.

“Upon my first meeting with Mr. Lopez I assured him that I was going to start the progressive discipline process immediately [of Matteson]; which I have done. I further told him that in order to do so, I would need written statements. He provided me with the first statement but chose to use you to provide the additional complaint," Jones said.

Officials with Los Angeles Community College District would not comment specifically on the lawsuit but released a statement instead: "Since this is a matter of pending litigation, both student and employee privacy rights are involved, and issues of due process are involved, the District will not comment on the specific allegations of the litigation. However, we remain committed to an atmosphere of academic exploration and appropriate balancing of interests."

“We’ve had a mix of reactions," said Moore, the college's president, to Raw Story on the reaction of faculty and students to the lawsuit. "I think folks, like in any type of situation, people pick sides. But we want to make sure what individuals understand is that Los Angeles City College is supportive of free speech and supportive of our students."

Moore said the college has hosted public conversations before for students that dealt with controversial issues such as affirmative action and illegal immigration, but that none of those discussions ever resulted in a lawsuit.

“We are very hopeful that once the process is completed… that the outcome will be supportive and positive for the campus," she said.

The district's statement referenced their academic freedom policy, which states, "The discussion of ideas, taboos, behavior or language which is an intrinsic part of the course content shall in no event constitute Prohibited Discrimination. It is recognized that an essential function of education is a probing of received opinions and an exploration of ideas which may cause some students discomfort. It is further recognized that academic freedom insures the faculty's right to teach and the student's right to learn."

Alliance was founded in 1994 by Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other prominent evangelicals who objected to the perceived loss of religious freedom in the U.S. court system. The organization has been involved in multiple Supreme Court cases over the proper role of religion in public spaces, especially schools. In recent years Alliance has been heavily campaigning against efforts to make gay-marriage legal.

An individual’s right to freedom of speech when he is in a public place, such as a park, is not the same as when he is in the classroom, said Collins, the First Amendment scholar.

“There are certain regulations that could occur in a classroom that could not occur in a park,” Collins said, adding that even in the classroom the law sees varying shades of freedom of speech, with students in middle and high school generally having less freedom to express themselves than college students.

Collins said the merits of Lopez’s case could also be determined by how appropriately he followed his class assignment. If his speech did not meet the requirements set out in class instructions by Matteson, then the professor might have been right to interrupt Lopez’s speech.

He added one caveat, “if students are not exposed to things that they disagree with, if they are not exposed to things that offend them, then quite apart from [Lopez’s] freedom of speech rights, his religious rights, which are important, that kind of attitude undermines the whole education mission. It is precisely the mission of public school to expose students to ideas that are foreign to them.”

While conservative media outlets appear to be backing Alliance and Lopez and liberals groups appear to be supporting the professor, gay journalist Zamma Avila is taking a more nuanced view of the situation.

"The whole incident in and of itself is offensive. As a gay-Latino journalist, I am deeply appalled at the lack of decorum on the part of the professor and the student. I disagree with the student’s views," Avila writes. "But our country was founded on free-speech, so much so that we included it first in our constitution. As much as I find religious speech archaic, ridiculous and disparaging, and as much I want all human beings to achieve equality in treatment, rights and privileges, shutting people [down] is not the answer.

"If we ever are to evolve as a species and move forward in this world, we must achieve our goals through dialogue. Lawsuits to our schools only divert time and money that can used to educate the minds that may someday lead us to prosperity."

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