Columnists : Marylee Shrider

Friday, Feb 27 2009 07:45 PM

Marylee Shrider: Student's freedom quashed in college classroom

Think freedom of speech is alive and well on California’s college campuses?

I’m starting to wonder.

It was in fine form back in 1992, when, as a returning student, I took a speech class at Bakersfield College.

It was obvious my political and social views differed from those of my professor’s, but that difference never interfered with my freedom to speak or her ability to fairly grade my efforts.

Jonathan Lopez, a student at Los Angeles Community College, should be so lucky.

Lopez, a Christian, filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the college earlier this month after being mocked for his faith in Speech 101, of all places.

According to the suit, Lopez and his fellow students were instructed by Professor John Matteson to give informative speeches on any topic. Lopez talked about how God had changed his life in a speech that included two Bible verses and a dictionary definition of marriage.

Before Lopez could finish his speech, however, an incensed Matteson cut him off, calling the 22-year-old a “fascist bastard” in front of the class and telling the other students they were free to leave if they were offended by Lopez’s remarks, the lawsuit says. When no students left, Matteson dismissed the entire class.

Later, when Lopez asked his professor to grade the speech, Matteson refused to do so, instead handing Lopez an evaluation form on which was written “proselytizing is inappropriate in public school” and a terse “Ask God what your grade is.”

That form — along with further examples of Matteson’s intolerant behavior toward Lopez — is now in the hands of some of my favorite people, the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group that filed the suit on Lopez’s behalf.

David Hacker, ADF staff counsel, says the case is part of a nationwide epidemic of vague and overbroad campus speech codes that allows “administrators and students to punish other students for anything that’s subjectively offensive.”

“Colleges are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas, but have really become islands of intolerance,” Hacker says.

It must be especially intimidating for students when that intolerance is directed at them by those in authority over their academic success, which is why I was relieved to read Cal State Bakersfield’s philosophy regarding academic freedom in the school catalog.

“The expression of different points of view in the classroom by faculty and students is not only a right, but also a responsibility,” reads the policy. “Having an ideological divergent opinion does not constitute grounds for punitive action.”

Good to know. I trust it’s a philosophy our local academics take to heart. Maybe one of them should fax a copy of the CSU philosophy to Allison Jones, dean of Academic Affairs at LACC and Matteson, who wasn’t in his office when called for comment.

In a letter responding to the ADF lawsuit, Jones wrote that the school considered the “classroom incident to be very serious in nature” and that she had already started “the progressive discipline process.”

Great. But Jones just couldn’t resist including in the letter statements by two of Lopez’s fellow students who felt Lopez “should have to pay some price for preaching hate in the classroom.”

Matteson’s assault on Lopez should have been blasted without qualification, but including the students’ remarks surely reflects Jones’ belief that the professor’s censorship had merit.

So a couple of students were offended by another’s “ideological divergent opinion.” So what? Perhaps it’s time these young adults learn the right to free speech is not theirs alone.

And perhaps it’s time for freedom-crushers like Matteson — who, by the way is still in the classroom — to find another line of work.

These are Marylee Shrider’s opinions, not necessarily The Californian’s. Reach her at 395-7474 or write mshrider@bakersfield.com.

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