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Instructor Returning as Feud Continues

Education: The junior college teacher was suspended after Muslim students said he insulted them. An inquiry largely backed him, but now he's fighting over a letter.

January 25, 2002|trimmed, hed/deck added | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a five-week hiatus due to winter break, the classroom drama that brought national attention to a political science instructor resumes next week at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.

Ken Hearlson returns to the campus Monday after being suspended, then cleared in December of accusations by Muslim students that he called them "terrorists" and "murderers" during a heated classroom discussion. His return has reignited the debate over where academic freedom ends and classroom harassment begins.

An independent investigator concluded after an 11-week inquiry that "most of the allegations made by the Muslim students ... are unsubstantiated."

Keeping the dispute alive is a fight over a letter written to Hearlson on Dec. 11 by college President Margaret Gratton, who cautioned him against singling out students for their religion or race.

"Students should not feel that they are required to defend their religion after you have portrayed it in a negative manner," she wrote in the letter, which Hearlson made public this week.

The letter was labeled a reprimand by Hearlson, his union and academic freedom watchdogs. Hearlson said his attorney is trying to get an injunction to set aside the letter's admonitions, and union officials are fighting to keep it out of his personnel file.

"This is a prior restraint issue," he said. "They're stopping academic speech before it even starts. How can you not discuss terrorism in a political science class?"

Hearlson said he'll continue to teach as he always has, though he'll tone down both the volume of his voice and the classroom debates. He said he now wears $8,000 worth of hearing aids, which have made him aware of his loud voice.

But he vowed to keep presenting controversial matter. This semester he plans to show "Terrorists Among Us," a PBS documentary alleging links between terrorists and some U.S. Muslim leaders.

Next Friday, Hearlson is scheduled to be on "Now with Bill Moyers" at 9 p.m. on KCET-Channel 28.

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