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Student sues L.A. City College district over gay-marriage speech

Weeks after Proposition 8 passed, student says, his public-speaking professor reacted inappropriately to his stance against same-sex unions. His lawyer alleges religious discrimination.

February 16, 2009|Gale Holland

A classroom dispute at Los Angeles City College in the emotional aftermath of Proposition 8 has given rise to a lawsuit testing the balance between 1st Amendment rights and school codes on offensive speech.

Student Jonathan Lopez says his professor called him a "fascist bastard" and refused to let him finish his speech against same-sex marriage during a public speaking class last November, weeks after California voters approved the ban on such unions.

When Lopez tried to find out his mark for the speech, the professor, John Matteson, allegedly told him to "ask God what your grade is," the suit says.

Lopez also said the teacher threatened to have him expelled when he complained to higher-ups.

In addition to financial damages, the suit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, seeks to strike down a sexual harassment code barring students from uttering "offensive" statements.

Jean-Paul Jassy, a 1st Amendment lawyer in Los Angeles, said a number of cases have explored the tension between offensive speech and the expression of religious views. Often, he said, the decision depends on the specifics of the situation.

"Free speech really thrives when people are going back and forth, disagreeing sometimes and sometimes finding things each other says offensive, but there are limits, particularly in a school setting," Jassy said after reviewing the lawsuit.

Lopez, a Los Angeles resident working toward an associate of arts degree, is described in the suit as a Christian who considers it a religious duty to share his beliefs, particularly with other students. He declined to comment. Matteson could not be reached.

Lopez is represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and co-founded by evangelical leader James Dobson of Focus on the Family. The group also advised proponents of Proposition 8 and sued, unsuccessfully, to stop the release of the names and addresses of donors, who said they had been harassed during the weeks of demonstrations that followed the measure's passage.

Alliance staff counsel David J. Hacker said Lopez was a victim of religious discrimination.

"He was expressing his faith during an open-ended assignment, but when the professor disagreed with some minor things he mentioned, the professor shut him down," Hacker said. "Basically, colleges and universities should give Christian students the same rights to free expression as other students."

Hacker said Alliance filed a similar suit in 2006 against Missouri State University over the school's attempt to discipline a Christian social-work student who refused to support adoptions by same-sex couples. The college settled the suit by, among other things, ordering an external review of the social-work program, Hacker said.

The Los Angeles Community College District's offices were closed Friday for the Presidents Day holiday, and the general counsel, Camille A. Goulet, could not be reached. But in a letter to Alliance, the district said it deemed Lopez's complaint "extremely serious in nature" and had launched a private disciplinary process.

In the letter, Dean Allison Jones also said that two students had been "deeply offended" by Lopez's address, one of whom stated that "this student should have to pay some price for preaching hate in the classroom."

Hacker said the district's response was inadequate.

"What they didn't do was ensure this wouldn't happen to other students," he said. "The dean accused Jonathan of offending other students."

The suit names the Los Angeles Community College District, which operates nine campuses including L.A. City College; its board of trustees; Matteson; and various administrators. Lopez is asking for a jury trial.

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gale.holland@latimes.com

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