Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Los Angeles City College professor’s evaluation of student’s speech, marked with the words, “Ask God what your grade is.”
A California court has ruled in favor of a student who was insulted for defending traditional marriage and has ordered the college to strike from its website a sexual harassment policy that censors speech deemed “offensive” to homosexual people.
As WND reported, Jonathan Lopez, a student at Los Angeles City College, was delivering a speech on his Christian faith in speech class when professor John Matteson interrupted him, called him a “fascist b—-rd” for mentioning a moral conviction against homosexual marriage and later told him to “ask God what your grade is.”
The professor also warned on his evaluation of Lopez’s speech, “Proselytizing is inappropriate in public school,” and later threatened to have Lopez expelled.
Represented by attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund, Lopez sued the Los Angeles City College District, the largest community college system in the U.S., with over 135,000 students.
The lawsuit not only targeted the school over the professor’s comments, however, but also sought removal of a campus sexual harassment and speech policy that court documents allege “systematically prohibits and punishes political and religious speech by students that is outside the campus political mainstream.”
ADF claims the district’s policy, which labels speech as sexual harassment whenever it might be “perceived as offensive or unwelcome” – such as Lopez’s opinions on sexual morality – opens the door for Christians and defenders of traditional marriage to suffer abuses similar to the type Lopez endured.
“Professor Matteson clearly violated Mr. Lopez’s free speech rights by engaging in viewpoint discrimination and retaliation because he disagreed with the student’s religious beliefs,” said ADF Senior Counsel David French in a statement. “Moreover, the district has a speech code that has created a culture of censorship on campus. America’s public universities and colleges are supposed to be a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ not a hotbed of intolerance.”
In a ruling handed down last week, U.S. District Judge George H. King apparently agreed, calling the campus policy “unconstitutionally overbroad” and ordering it to be stricken from the college’s website.
The lawsuit alleges Lopez was participating in a class assignment to give a speech on “any topic” from six to eight minutes.
“During the November, 24, 2008 class, Mr. Lopez delivered an informative speech on God and the ways in which Mr. Lopez has seen God act both in his life and in the lives of others through miracles,” ADF explained in a statement. “In the middle of the speech, he addressed the issues of God and morality; thus, he referred to the dictionary definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman and also read a passage from the Bible discussing marriage.”
Those comments led to the outburst from the professor, who canceled the remaining class period and mocked Lopez’s faith on his grading review.
Even though college administrators informed ADF that a “progressive discipline” procedure had been started in the case, ADF filed for a preliminary injunction that would require the school to remove the sexual harassment policy from its website.
According to court documents, the district’s website sexual harassment policy stated, “If [you are] unsure if certain comments or behavior are offensive do not do it, do not say it. … Ask if something you do or say is being perceived as offensive or unwelcome.”
Judge King, however, ruled, “By using subjective words such as ‘hostile’ and ‘offensive,’ the policy is so subjective and broad that it applies to protected speech.”
He further quoted court precedent, stating, “‘It is firmly settled that under our
Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.’”
“Thus,” the ruling concluded, “the policy reaches constitutionally protected speech that is merely offensive to some listeners, such as discussions of religion, homosexual relations and marriage, sexual morality and freedom, polygamy, or even gender politics and policies. Indeed, the LACC’s website indicates that sexual harassment can include ‘sexist statements … or degrading attitudes/comments about women or men.’ This could include an individual’s outdated, though protected, opinions on the proper role of the genders. While it may be desirable to promote harmony and civility, these values cannot be enforced at the expense of protected speech under the First Amendment. Thus, the policy is unconstitutionally overbroad.”
The judge then granted ADF’s request for a preliminary injunction, suggesting Lopez was likely to win his case and that the posted policy was likely to cause irreparable harm should it be left in place. He ordered the college district to remove the policy within two weeks.
“Christian students shouldn’t be penalized for expressing their beliefs at a public college,” commented French on the judge’s decision. “We are pleased that the court has taken this step to ensure that the First Amendment rights of students are not violated. We will continue to litigate this case to make sure the constitutional rights of our client and other students at the college are protected.”