Flickr photo by Cameron Parkins
When the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed a UC Hastings College of the Law decision to bar a Christian student group from receiving university funds last month, some free-speech advocates winced, saying the court's opinion would be used by colleges and universities to squelch offensive or unpopular speech.
It looks like they might be right.
The Los Angeles Community College District is trying to use the Hastings ruling to bolster its defense in a speech code case, in which a college professor mocked a student who was speaking about his Christian faith in class.
The Los Angeles case began in fall 2008 when Los Angeles City College student Jonathan Lopez gave an impassioned talk about his Christian beliefs during a Speech 101 class. He spoke about his opposition to gay marriage in the wake of the passage of the controversial Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state.
According to the complaint, professor John Matteson interrupted Lopez, called him a "fascist bastard" and refused to let him finish his speech. Matteson left an evaluation form on Lopez's backpack that said "Ask God what your grade is."
Lopez sued, seeking financial damages and a ban on enforcing the sexual harassment code, which prohibited "hostile" and "offensive" remarks in and out of the classroom.
In a motion to dismiss, college district officials said they did not approve of Matteson's behavior and had put him through a disciplinary process. But Lopez's suit, they said, was a publicity stunt. The Speech 101 class was not a public forum and First Amendment rights could be limited in that setting, they argued.
In July 2009, U.S. District Judge George H. King granted a preliminary injunction barring the enforcement of the harassment code at the district, the Los Angeles Times reported. The college district appealed.
Meanwhile, in a case centered a few hundred miles north at UC Hastings College of the Law, the U.S. Supreme Court in June upheld a university policy that denied official status to a Christian student organization that excluded gays, saying the university has a right to withhold school funds from groups that exclude some students.
Now, the Los Angeles Community College District is trying to apply the Hastings ruling to its own situation.
In a July 15 letter filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, attorneys for the Los Angeles Community College District said the Hastings decision meant federal courts should "defer to decisions of educational administrators, even in the free-speech context and even in higher education."
The letter said the Hastings case confirmed that the Los Angeles district "acted appropriately" in writing its sexual-harassment policy.
David Hacker, an attorney for Alliance Defense Fund who is representing Jonathan Lopez, responded with a letter of his own, saying the college district had misinterpreted the Hastings ruling.
Hacker's July 22 letter quotes another part of the opinion: "(A) public-educational institution exceeds constitutional bounds … when it restricts speech … simply because it finds the views expressed by a group to be abhorrent."
Hacker also says the college district's speech code is discriminatory because, unlike UC Hastings College of the Law, it "wield(s) the stick of prohibition" on any student viewpoint deemed "offensive" or "harassing." Hastings, in contrast, did not exclude any particular viewpoint, Hacker wrote.
The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which first reported on the college district's use of the Hastings ruling, has filed an amicus brief in the case, saying that the college district's speech code unconstitutionally restricts protected speech.