February 16, 2009

A First Amendment Test

In a February 16, 2009 local news piece titled Student sues L.A. City College district over gay-marriage speech, the Los Angeles Times writes “Weeks after Proposition 8 passed, student says, his public-speaking professor reacted inappropriately to his stance against same-sex unions. His lawyer alleges religious discrimination.”

The story tells of a student describing himself as “a Christian who considers it a religious duty to share his beliefs, particularly with other students”. The student, Jonathan Lopez, alleges that his Public Speaking professor called him names, including "fascist bastard", refused to let him finish his talk, and told him he should "ask God” if he wanted to know his grade. Lopez was offering a speech voicing his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Lopez sued, of course, naming as respondents the Los Angeles Community College District, the board of trustees, the professor, and various administrators. He wants a jury trial. This is shaping up to be a 21st century opposite of the Scopes trial.

If the facts are correct as reported in the Times, Lopez may have a valid case based on First Amendment grounds. The college is publically funded, so censorship of free speech would be an infringement, and an agent of the government apparently stifled Lopez based upon some personal agenda.

The school is defending the actions based on student rules. The college district apparently has a code of conduct prohibiting students from uttering offensive speech. According to school administrators at least two students complained that they were offended by the content of the speech, one of whom called it “hate speech.”

Lopez is claiming that it is his religious duty to proselytize, and that the code infringes on that duty. If the suit falls short, this will be the weak spot. Lopez may indeed have a right to his beliefs, but others have a right to not be subjected to those beliefs in the school setting. There is plenty of case law settling that question.

However, the actions and utterances of the professor, if the allegations are proved true, will be difficult to justify. If the professor plans to defend his actions because perceived a conduct code violation, it will be difficult to explain his comments. Even contrary and disagreeable speech is protected by the constitution, and as the article notes, free speech thrives on debate. Political debate can sometimes be offensive and those involved should be cognizant of the fact.

The Alliance Defense Fund, a group founded by evangelical Christian James Dobson, has taken the case for Lopez. They claim their client is the victim of religious discrimination. With Dobson’s group involved, this thing has the making of a media circus.


Anonymous said...

Not enough data. I'd like to see the text of the speech.

Mule Breath said...

Agreed, but so far I've not found a source. My piece contains so many qualifiers for just that reason. I'm still looking and would appreciate knowing if anyone else finds something.

Without full knowledge it is impossible to form a rational opinion. Generally I am opposed to any infringement on free expression, even when the speech is contrary to my beliefs, and even if the content is utter poo.

Hateful speech or speech inciting violence are possibly different zebras, but even that is circumstantially dependant.

Regardless, if the alleged behavior of the professor can be verified, the fellow needs a good spanking. There is no room on a publically funded campus for authoritarianism.

Recovering Grady Addict said...

While I may personally disagree with the reported content of his piece, and the venue he utilized to deliver his opinion, I am still a supporter of free speech. The same ammendment which allows you to squawk in my face about my lifestyle is the same ammendment which allows me to return a barking "F-you" lol.

What sucks the most is that the professor may have projected his opinion in return, rather than trying to foster discussion between opinions and encouraged tolerance while doing so.

And while I would also like to review the content of his presentation, I would be saddened if it were yet another hate filled, closeminded, intollerant sermon. And as I mention sermon... has anyone raised the question of separation of church and state? How might that factor in if there are govt funds supporting this school? (just a little grease in the fire) -wink

Mule Breath, said...


Since it was a public speaking class, and the speaker was a student delivering an assignment, applying the 1A separation clause might be a stretch. I doubt that would go far.

Referencing the rest of your message, I’m getting the feel that a sermon is just what it was, and that it may not have been at all innocent. Of course it could be that the Alliance Defense Fund only picked up on the case after the fact, but my radar is thinking something else.

Again, I have no firm knowledge and I haven’t been able to locate the text of the speech… so this is just my suspicion… but it has the markings of being a “seed” case, comparable but opposite to the 1926 State of Tennessee vs.Scopes trial. That one was a setup too.

If you Google Alliance Defense Fund you can see previous cases this group has worked, and their agenda is obvious. You’ll also see that one of their goals is the destruction of the ACLU. Not cool.

Rogue Medic said...

This should be interesting. If he is preaching in a classroom, but they are not given any specific topic for a speech, there should not be any violation of the separation of church and state. He is speaking his own opinion. Each other student is able to do the same. The other students may not want to listen to his sermon, if it was a sermon, and he may not want to listen to their speeches.

If the school were to ban any individual religious speech, that probably would be a violation of the separation of church and state. To have a school, in this case a community college, prohibit discussion of religious topics seems like the state attempting to enforce an absence of religion, rather than a freedom of religion.

tgtsmom said...

Mostly, I have questions. Was this an assigned topic? Were there stated restrictions on topics prior to the speach? Did the professor know this student's leanings prior to the presentation? If the answer to the last is yes, then the professor is either a blind man who doesn't EVER talk to his student or was looking for a fight, too.

No matter what, the religious zealot has the right to his point of view and the next speaker up could have easily given the opposing point of view and made him sit and listen quietly to it without interruption and none of us would have to be irritated by the waste of money this will be for the tax payers in California.

Mule Breath, said...

Mom (may I call you mom?)

From the scant data abailable it appears that it was an assignment. No information regarding parameters seems to be available. Regardless, if the alleged actions of the professor are confirmed, he is the chump.

We agree that even a zealot is protected under 1A, within limits, and you are correct that this will cost the taxpayers bucks that it shouldn't.

TOTWTYTR said...

"Even contrary and disagreeable speech is protected by the constitution, and as the article notes, free speech thrives on debate. Political debate can sometimes be offensive and those involved should be cognizant of the fact."

One slight correction my friend. It is especially that speech which many would consider contrary and disagreeable which the First Amendment protects. Speech which conform and is agreeable never needs protection.

That colleges, private or public, use "conduct codes" to regulate free speech is anathema to the concept of free discourse and exploration of all ideas, which the very same colleges and universities should be championing, not suppressing.

Mule Breath, said...


Speech which conform and is agreeable never needs protection

True enough. Perhaps I wasn't forceful enough in my statements, but then I'm seldom as emphatic as you, my friend.

That colleges, private or public [snip] should be championing, not suppressing

Should, perhaps, but private schools may do as they wish. I'm not footing the taxes to support them and don't care what they teach.

Rogue Medic said...

Mule Breath,

"That colleges, private or public [snip] should be championing, not suppressing"

Should, perhaps, but private schools may do as they wish. I'm not footing the taxes to support them and don't care what they teach.

That does not mean that they should not be championing the free discourse and exploration of all ideas. That just means that there is no Constitutional mandate to behave appropriately.

Mule Breath, said...

Exactly what I've said. "Should". Why don't we test it by offering a opportunity for some free exchange on the topic of scriptural incongruities at Liberty U or College of the Ozarks?

Rogue Medic said...

I was talking about real schools, not daycare for fundamentalists.

Mule Breath, said...

Well... they *are* accredited.

But of course you are correct. Any school worth calling a school should offer an uninhibited learning atmosphere. Impartial professors may be few and far between, but we can (and should) expect them to maintain an unbiased presence in the classroom.

Rogue Medic said...

Accredited by:

Accrediting and
Unrepentantly returning to the
Dark ages.

Not that I have any kind of opinion on the matter. :-)