A lawsuit has been filed against officials of the Los Angeles Community College District after a professor allegedly censored and threatened to expel a student for his speech about marriage and his Christian faith in a public speaking class.
For his public speaking class under Los Angeles Community College (LACC) Professor John Matteson, Jonathan Lopez spoke on Nov. 24, 2008 about his Christianity. His speech included reading the dictionary definition of marriage and reciting two Bible verses.
Prof. Matteson interrupted Lopez mid-speech, allegedly calling him a “fascist bastard.” He told the other students they could leave if they were offended. When no one left, he dismissed the class.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which is filing the lawsuit on Lopez’s behalf, made available the evaluation sheet Prof. Matteson gave Lopez. Though giving several high marks, the professor wrote “ask God what your grade is” and “proselytism is inappropriate in public school.”
The ADF alleges school officials did not respond to Lopez’s complaints about censorship and ridicule.
One week after Lopez’s speech, after seeing Lopez talk to the college’s dean of academic affairs, Matteson allegedly told Lopez that he would make sure he would be expelled from school.
Matteson reportedly continued to target Lopez’s faith for public ridicule throughout the semester.
"Christian students shouldn't be penalized or discriminated against for speaking about their beliefs," ADF Senior Counsel David French said in a statement. "Public institutions of higher learning cannot selectively censor Christian speech. This student was speaking well within the confines of his professor's assignment when he was censored and ultimately threatened with expulsion."
Allison Jones, Dean of Academic Affairs at LACC, in a Dec. 4 letter to ADF Litigation Staff Counsel David J. Hacker said she had met with Lopez and heard his complaints.
“I also asked him to provide supporting documentation from students whom he indicated supported his accounting of the classroom incident with Mr. Matteson. He indicated he would. Instead, he chose to involve your organization.”
Jones said she had assured Lopez she would immediately start the “progressive discipline process,” adding that she had already done so. She wrote that she had again requested written statements.
“He provided me with the first statement but chose to use you to provide the additional complaint.”
“I view this classroom incident to be extremely serious in nature and will be able to expedite the process,” Jones wrote. “However, since this is a personnel matter, I cannot violate Mr. Matteson’s privacy. Suffice it to say, action is being taken, but specific details may not be shared with Mr. Lopez or you.”
Jones insisted that Lopez’s concerns were “in no way ignored.”
She then cited two students’ statements she had received which had also been signed by several classmates.
“Contrary to Mr. Lopez’ assumptions, these classmates were deeply offended by his speech,” Jones wrote.
One student said “His speech was not of the informative style that our assignment called for, but rather a preachy, persuasive speech that was completely inappropriate and deeply offensive. I respect his right to freedom of speech, but I also do not believe that our classroom is the proper platform for him to spout his hateful propaganda.”
A second student said “I don’t know what kind of actions can be taken in this situation, but I expect that this student should have to pay some price for preaching hate in the classroom.”
“Regardless of the other students’ reactions to Mr. Lopez’ speech,” Jones wrote in her letter, “Mr. Matteson will still be disciplined. First Amendment rights will not be violated as is evidenced by the fact that even though many of the students were offended by Mr. Lopez’ speech, no action will be taken against any of them for expressing their opinions.”
CNA spoke by phone on Tuesday with David Hacker, litigation staff counsel at the ADF.
He said the ADF is still filing suit because “this is really about protecting Jonathan Lopez’ right to free speech on campus and really the free speech rights of all students at the college. It’s a prime example where Christians simply cannot be targeted for punishment for expressing their views on campus.”
Though the universities are supposed to be the “marketplace of ideas,” Hacker charged “they have really become islands of intolerance.”
He explained many universities and schools, like LACC have hate speech codes which “declare open season on views that don’t fit their leftist orthodoxy.”
Countering Lopez’s fellow students cited by Jones, Hacker said the complaint itself backs up Lopez’s account, especially its lines “ask God what your grade is” and “proselytizing is not allowed in public schools.”
“Here is a classic and blatant form of viewpoint discrimination and, really, retaliation against Mr. Lopez,” Hacker told CNA.
“Mr. Lopez made a sworn statement saying that the professor shut him down midway through the speech and told other students they could leave if they were offended by this. Nobody left, and then the professor dismissed the class.”
He also argued that it is irrelevant what other students might have felt was offensive.“That’s the whole problem with LACC’s speech code. It allows students and administrators to selectively censor anyone’s speech. We’re seeing this happen time again. It’s really an unconstitutional epidemic where speech codes are used to shut down Christian speech.”