A student has filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles City College, claiming that he was giving a class-assigned speech on same sex marriage (which he apparently opposes) and his instructor interrupted him calling him a “fascist bastard.” The instructor then dismissed the class without allowing the student to finish and, on his evaluation sheet, did not enter a final score. Instead, he wrote that the student should “ask God what your grade is.”
I have to admit that there is part of me that admires the attempt to recruit divine assistance at grading time, but this is a serious matter. It does not appear that the college is defending the instructor and claims that it will take appropriate steps to deal with the instructor and protect the student. It says, however, that the instructor’s privacy must be respected and any disciplinary action may not be made public.
A few things interest me.
The first, of which this is a larger part, is the rancor that has roiled California in the wake of Proposition 8. As I have blogged before, opposition to same sex marriage is viewed, by a portion of the population, as the moral equivalent of racism and something that ought not to be tolerated in civil society. Thus, some have worked to disclose the identity of supporters of the measure in ways that make it easy for others to find them. The American Association of Law Schools deemed it appropriate to refuse to hold meetings in a hotel owned by a prominent Propostion 8 supporter. While I think everyone agrees that the instructor (if the allegations are true) acted improperly, he was merely expressing — at the wrong time — what a not trivial number of Californians seem to believe.
This presents, I think, a variety of difficulties for civil libertarians. Many believe that disclosure of donations to candidates and ballot measures is vital information that assists the public in evaluating the messages they finance. Yet, use of that information to pressure donors threatens to stifle public participation.
Opponents of measures like Proposition 8 have a right to speak their minds and many apparently do believe that opposition to same sex marriage is rooted in hate. But does the choice to frame the issue in this way poison political dialogue in a way that prevents the development of consensus on SSM and related issues? Is any significant degree of consensus even possible?
And what about the college’s insistence on the privacy of the instructor? Let’s put aside the question of whether California law requires this (as general counsel of a national company, I came to learn that California is one huge legal outlier). If an instructor discriminates against a student on the basis of race, religion, gender, etc., should the university disclose whatever action it has taken in the interest of assuring the student (and the broader community) that it takes such matters seriously?
Finally, there may be a question as to whether the student’s speech was responsive to the class assignment, i.e., that it was persuasive as opposed to informational. Putting that aside, what of the instructor’s objection to its religious content? The instructor wrote on the evaluation form that the speech was inappropriate for a public school. Is that right? Should public schools assume responsibility for protecting student from unwanted religious messages delivered by other students? And, if they should, does this impose on them a duty to protect students from irreligious messages delivered by other students? What if those messages are ostensibly secular, but inconsistent with or, to make the case stronger, derisive of the religious beliefs of the hearer?