• September 4, 2015

U. S. Appeals Court Throws Out Suit Over Religious Speech

A federal appeals court on Friday threw out a case brought by a Los Angeles City College student whose Speech 101 professor shouted him down and called him a "fascist bastard" while he was giving a presentation about his Christian faith.

The student, Jonathan Lopez, sued the Los Angeles Community College District last year. He said that the professor, John Matteson, retaliated and discriminated against him because of his religious beliefs. The lawsuit asked the court to strike down a district sexual-harassment code that forbade students and employees from creating a "hostile or offensive" educational environment. A federal district judge later issued an injunction preventing the college district from enforcing that code, saying it was overly broad and violated free-speech rights.

But a panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously found that Mr. Lopez failed to show he was harmed by the sexual-harassment policy and that he lacked standing to bring the case. Despite "the disturbing facts of the case," Mr. Lopez did not show how his speech, or his intended speech in the future, would have violated the policy he challenged, the judges ruled.

"No LACC official or student invoked or even mentioned the policy, nor did anyone suggest that Lopez's ... speech constituted sexual harassment," the ruling says.

David J. Hacker, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, which helped bring the lawsuit, said the decision could have chilling effects on student speech nationwide. Policies like the one Mr. Lopez challenged, which apply to students any time they are on the institution's campus, "lead to students' believing they can speak less," he said.

Mr. Hacker said the court's decision conflicted with another ruling last month by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which held that portions of the student-conduct code at the University of the Virgin Islands were unconstitutional. That court used a more relaxed standard to grant standing to the student who challenged the parts of the college policy on similar First Amendment grounds.

Given the conflict, the Alliance Defense Fund will probably appeal the Lopez case, either to the full Ninth Circuit or to the Supreme Court, Mr. Hacker said.


1. panacea - September 19, 2010 at 08:28 pm

Both Lopez and Matteson behaved badly. According to the court documents, Lopez was doing more than giving a speech about his faith, and in any case was not meeting the criteria of the assignment, an informative speech, but was making a persuasive speech by proselytizing to the class.

Matteson should have interrupted Lopez, informed him that the presentation did not meet the criteria of the assignment, and given him an opportunity to represent later after re-writing his speech. Instead, he heckled his own student and wrote a smart @$$ remark on his written paper.

2. seraphpendragon - September 20, 2010 at 09:17 am

I happen to agree with you panacea that Matteson should have interrupted. But you heckle your student? That's some seriously poor customer service. A reprimand is in order there.

That's like calling a student a brain-dead moron because he's doing a math problem the wrong way. :-S

3. washingtonwarrior - September 20, 2010 at 09:27 am

How could the professer have possibly retaliated and discriminated against the student if the student received an "A" in the class? Did he want an "A+" because he believes in Jesus Christ? Give me a break...

4. 12077884 - September 20, 2010 at 09:29 am

If the speech was off topic, ran overtime, or was poorly done, then the student gets a bad grade. This is one way students learn what is expected. To shout down a speech because of topic (let's even leave the name calling out of this) means that the First Amendment is dead in that class and if Prof. Matteson is still working there then free speech is dead in Los Angeles City College. I hope the professor learns as much as he hoped his student would have learned.

5. copesan - September 20, 2010 at 09:41 am

It sounds like both parties behaved badly. However, I am increasingly surprised by the hostility often expressed in the academy against _any_ practice of Christianity - its as if all practicing Christians are assumed to be crazed right wing evangelicals.

6. cwinton - September 20, 2010 at 10:08 am

I think copesan (#5) is being a little hypersensitive. The student precipitated the incident by abusing a speech assignment to proselytize and the instructor totally blew it in attempting to cut him off as evidenced by his unacceptable reaction, one can only assume because the two got into an argument in front of the class. I would hope that in any speech class someone would be cut off it he or she was proselytizing for any religion or cause rather than staying within the bounds of the assignment.

7. jgpeters - September 20, 2010 at 10:29 am

As a deeply religious person, I would have been very upset if a professor attacked my religious beliefs, however, the religious beliefs that this student presented were offensive to many members of the class. The specific issue was over homosexuality and gay marriage. Again, I personally happen to oppose gay marriage (I'm fine with civil unions and making benefits available to partners), but apparently the student's attack on homosexuality and gay marriage was presented in an offensive manner. I have had many discussions about my views on marriage with people who hold the opposite position and none have caused offense, though they still disagree with me. I completely agree that the professor handled this improperly, but this was not an issue of anti-christian bias.

There will be times when a person's religious believes are inappropriate to state in a public forum. Would you allow a student to say his or her beliefs were that your ethnic group was sub-human? Would you not take action against a professor who allowed hate speech or other abusive talk in a class you were a part of, even if it was couched in someone's religious beliefs? Certainly we want to defend peoples rights to believe what they will, but just because your speech comes from your religious beliefs doesn't mean that it is automatically protected.

8. olmsted - September 20, 2010 at 11:03 am

And if a student was proselytizing for veganism, or against war, or for global warming responses? Would the professor have acted similarly, despite the stance "offending" some? The fact of the matter is that all offense is not taken with similar degrees of severity. Students "abuse" assignments all the time. Does that mean in each case the professor should jump all over them? Why for one topic and not another?

Failing to meet the bounds of an assignment brings a simple, predefined outcome: grade decrease. Surely others failed to meet all assignment expectations. I doubt the instructor jumped down their throats. Nay, this is, as an earlier poster states, another sign that some issues are more caustically received on campuses.

9. glord - September 20, 2010 at 11:34 am

Gee Olmsted, I don't see anyone here defending the professor or suggesting that "jumping all over" a student is correct.

10. saluki87 - September 20, 2010 at 11:53 am

The professor's behavior was much worse than the student's. A professor should be well above the behavior exhibited in this case and use the situation as a teaching moment (which might not work, but that doesn't matter). However, the legal outcome appears correct.

11. fullofblame - September 20, 2010 at 12:31 pm

In a more civilized world than litigation-obsessed Americans inhabit, the professor would apologise for heckling the student and writing an abusive comment on the student's paper, and the student would apologise for abusing the forum he was offered by operating outwith the bounds of academic discourse. If only one apologises, any action by the other party should be struck down; if neither apologises, then and only then should litigation be considered. On a slightly different note, the issue does not seem to be about religious freedom of speech. Although I am so deeply irreligious I think the only miracle is that people can believe in miracles, I would welcome and listen appreciatively to a presentation from the deeply religious jgpeters (post 7): his stance on religion appears to have much wisdom in it, and meets the standards of academic discourse The issue does appear to be about claiming in an inappropriate forum that a set of beliefs sanctify and elevate the speaker, affording him/her special knowledge and a moral status available only to those who buy into those beliefs. It is that that really pisses people off and may draw an abusive response.

12. brambeus - September 20, 2010 at 01:21 pm

@#7. Would you or s.o. else kindly explain to me what the difference between civil union and gay marriage is? Let me tell you what I understand. The civil union would (1) permit those united to benefit from the marriage provisions of the tax code(s); (2) permit those united to hold durable power of attorney in matters of health care [though why they shouldn't be able to do so otherwise makes no sense [but then many laws don't either]; (3) be covered under one person's health, dental, eye, etc., insurance.

Now, I must be missing other rights/priviliges afforded to married heterosexuals that the law(s) as presently written and interpreted deny to same-sex couples. Please help me out here.

Is it the words "civil union" that are the problem. If so, those troubled might recall the conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty about the word 'glory'.

Finally, on topic. I believe most "posters" are correct: Mr Matteson should have made it clear that the speech was to be an exposition not an argument and behaved like a grown-up faculty member, i.e., kept to civil discourse instead of behaving like an unruly student. Of all places, a speech class is where one might expect opinions not shared by the instructor and student(s) to be expressed. Mr Lopez, as the court decided, showed that he had suffered no damages; one doesn't sue because of a bruised ego or appeal to a sex harrassment code for redress in a case such as this. If Mr Lopez received a low mark for the course and could demonstrate that he had performed satisfactorily, he should pursued his complaint through channels.

In and ideal world, the two would have postponed a discussion of their positions until after class, preferably w/o a witness, but given the litigious nature of American society, each would probably wish to be protected by an on-the-record of the proceedings.

In my day as a student and graduate student it was leftist students who failed to conduct themselves as adults and participate in a civil discourse. Now there are individuals who wear religious chips on their shoulders. We have become such a credential-oriented society [I expect that sanitary engineers, i.e., garbage collectors will soon have to earn some sort of degree] that I often want to ask to see the paper/diploma giving an uncivil argumentative individual a monopoly on the truth.

13. jesor - September 20, 2010 at 01:38 pm

The court probably ruled correctly in this case since the student was attempting to use this situation to overturn a campus policy that wasn't applied during this circumstance rather than obtain justice from the faculty member. It's essentially the equivalent of citing someone for not using a turn signal when they rolled through a stop sign while making a left turn, and then having the person say that the ticket should be overturned because the stop sign was covered by bushes. The argument doesn't fit the circumstances.

14. vero216 - September 20, 2010 at 01:52 pm

A professor should be well above the behavior exhibited in this case and use the situation as a teaching moment (which might not work, but that doesn't matter). However, the legal outcome appears correct.

15. bij_labelge - September 20, 2010 at 04:05 pm

To brambeus, who said, in reference to "gay marriage" vs "civil union" that "civil union" would permit:
(2) permit those united to hold durable power of attorney in
matters of health care [though why they shouldn't be able
to do so otherwise makes no sense [but then many laws don't

The fact is that an individual CAN assign a durable power of attorney to ANY other person now. No one needs either "gay marriage" or "civil union" to do that. This is one issue that needs to be removed from the table and which falls squarely in the hands of the partners themselves. While it is true that parents and/or siblings have prohibited the "partner" from making health-care decisions, that COULD NOT happen had the gay pair taken care of their wishes by creating durable powers of attorney for each other.

16. gadget - September 20, 2010 at 06:03 pm

Because I don't want to be associated with the religious connotations of marriage, I wish that I could have a civil union instead.

It appears we all agree that the professor went over the line in his response to the student.

I have to deal with students who, when learning how to write research papers, believe that they can appeal to God for proof or evidence to support their arguments or points. I tell them that no appeals to God or the Bible may be used in academic discourse unless they are theology majors. So far, students have acquiesced (we do not have a theology major or minor).

What do I do if a student doesn't go along? Some have wanted very strongly to skirt the requirement, to the point of insisting that there is no academic research on their topic, research that usually takes me ten minutes to find in the library databases and show them. I do let them bring up moral-philosophical objections in one paragraph, but then they must use academic research sources for everything else. So far, that has worked.

When it comes to topics, I have them talk to me why they want to write on a certain topic to make sure they are research focused, not desiring to write a screed on their religious beliefs. So far, I have only allowed one student to write a paper on abortion because he demonstrated that he had appropriate peer reviewed sources. His paper was well-researched and well-written, using appropriately neutral language, and covered the history of abortion in Western Europe.

It is tricky, and I do not know how I would handle an obdurate student. When I have been challenged, I tell them that my job is to teach them how to write an academic paper using peer reviewed sources in academic publications. Unless they can show me some academic, peer reviewed sources up front, a topic that won't allow them to learn how to research and write for academics is one they cannot chose.

17. katisumas - September 21, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Olmastead, I suspect the prof was gay or there were gay students in the classroom and the presenter used offensive language referring to them.... Still the prof should have kept his cool and stopped the student without using insults, but it must have hit something personal in the prof. We are all human after all....

18. katisumas - September 21, 2010 at 12:32 pm

#4 or 12007, there is no free speech in the classroom! Not for the teacher and not for the students.... If there was "free speech" there, wouldn't the students then have the right to have a conversation while the prof is lecturing? Wouldn't the prof have the right to teach or just speak of whatever she wants rather than the topic she was hired to teach?

You're confusing apples with oranges.

19. terrence_erdt - September 21, 2010 at 03:45 pm

Years ago, I used to have an assignment requiring that a student present an argument of his/her choice, but then the following class he/she would have to take the opposite position. Allusions, of course, were made to the classical tradition represented by Milton's L'Allegro and Il Penseroso. Several times (this was in the era when students were regarded as "apprentices" (and often poor ones at that), rather than "consumers," (a position which administrators eventually fostered, and which I see here represented with a certain righteousness by those openly politically correct) students known on the campus then as "Jesus freaks" advocated their conception of Christian faith but then couldn't take a contrary approach. In those days, even as a TA, albeit one leading his own class, it was a relatively easy matter to insist on academic standards and ignore the claptrap one encounters today. But, of course, it's now unseemly to teach that "disinterestedness" is a hallmark of scholarly and scientific inquiry.

20. new_theologian - September 21, 2010 at 05:43 pm

First, let me acknowledge that the specifics of the exercise dictate the sort of approach the student can take to the assignment and still expect to receive credit for having completed it. But, that said, unless there are people on this forum who have a lot more inside information about this incident than I do, I can't claim that I know the specifics of the assignment. Even if we grant that the assignment is to write an "informative" speech, that still leaves open the possibility that a student is able to "inform" in a way that others are likely to find compelling. When a student casts a problem in the right light it can, and often does, appear beautiful and desirable, or just plain correct, to the audience. Rhetoric is not necessarily "empty." So IF that's what happened, and the professor suddenly felt that the student's persuasiveness constituted "proslytiism", then this is clearly view-point descrimination.

Now, was the court ruling correct or not? That all depends upon how the case was argued. But it does seem to me that Supreme Court decisions have established that a chilling-effect on speech is a form of damage, does provide standing in court, and is a sufficient reason to strike down a law as unconstitutional. So if the student argues that the public school's policy is implicated in creating a culture hostile to the expression of his religious views in a context in which alternative views would be welcome, and that, therefore, he could be expected to face harassment by authority figures at the institution should be express his views, then I would think he could argue that there IS a chilling-effect, and that, even if he did not suffer a poor grade in the course, he did receive the clear message that he'd better keep silent about his religious convictions, or else.

Of course, it's easy for me to imagine a different scenario, but even then, the behavior of this professor simply cannot be justified. I would NEVER get away with heckling a student in my classroom. I teach at a very conservative, unapologetically Catholic school, and if I heckled an atheist, or a Muslim, or a fundamentalist evangelical, I'd probably put my job at risk.

But, of course, I'd never do it, because that's not appropriate behavior. We're supposed to model civil discourse for our students, not allow ourselves to be drawn in to Gorgian debates. The professor might have said something like, "I can see that you are personally compelled by this worldview, and that you see an awful lot at stake in it. But what would you say to someone who did not already grant the foundational premises of your position? What does YOUR perspective have to do with THIS person's intellectual honesty? What can you say to him or to her?" This kind of question would force the student to think within the disciplinary boundaries appropriate to that particular classroom environment, and would help the student to develop his own critical-thinking skills by considering his own underlying presuppositions. His presuppositions may or may not be true and/or provable. But that question can't even be addressed until he becomes aware of what they are. A professor is supposed to help students undertake that exploration.

21. marka - September 24, 2010 at 09:10 pm

Good comment #20.

I, too, am not fully aware of all the facts (and I doubt most of the commenters are, either).

What I am aware of is a classroom tendency to suppress so-called 'Christian' speech. Lots of other 'speech' is allowed, even if it attempts to convince others of a certain position - however, 'Christian' views are not allowed.

I'm particularly sensitive to this because my daughter currently attends Reed College. As part of parent orientation, a fair amount of attention has been directed to efforts to ameliorate this tendency. My daughter confirms that 'Christian' beliefs are frowned upon, and my own research suggests that this has been a long-term problem at this 'a-theistic' campus.

So, I ask myself - if an Orthodox Jew presented essentially the same speech, what would have been the reaction ('fascist' 'bastard' would be particularly ironic.) A devout Muslim? A Hindu? Methinks there would have been a drastically different result.

Talk about double standards ...

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