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College speaking 101

Allegations in a student's lawsuit about his community college teacher test what can be discussed in a classroom, but free speech should prevail.

February 27, 2009

When a dispute between a teacher and a student ends up in court, at least one of the parties involved deserves detention. Jonathan Lopez, a student at Los Angeles City College who is suing the Community College District, says he was bullied by the teacher of his public-speaking course after he delivered a speech that included his religious views about marriage.

If Lopez's claims -- including allegations that his teacher, John Matteson, called him a "fascist bastard" and told him to "ask God what your grade is" -- are accurate, Matteson's behavior was unconscionable. Even in a college classroom, where there is a tradition of professors provoking lively discussion, his words would be a violation of a professional trust. The teacher also would have crossed a legal line. As Lopez's lawyers point out in their federal complaint, the courts have ruled that public schools may not discriminate against student speech because it is religious in character.

A 1969 Supreme Court decision on students' 1st Amendment rights acknowledged that free speech in school doesn't allow disruption of class or violations of the rights of others. It's also clear that religious freedom doesn't trump academic standards. If a student in a biology class refuses to answer an exam question about evolution because he regards the Book of Genesis as a science text, he shouldn't pass.

Lopez's case is different. The course was in public speaking, and students chose their own topics for an "informative" speech that would be graded on criteria including "strong eye contact" and "clear pronunciation." Some might say that Lopez's discussion of how his faith shaped his view that marriage is between a man and a woman was polemical, not informative. (A different assignment required students to deliver a "persuasive" speech.) That's a quibble. Lopez was informing his audience about his views; that they were rooted in religion is irrelevant.

So is the fact that two students were offended by Lopez's speech, calling it "hateful propaganda" and "preaching hate." As long as he was opposing same-sex marriage on religious grounds -- and not harassing individual students -- he was making an argument that figured prominently in the public debate about Proposition 8. It's not an argument this page finds persuasive, but we wouldn't try to suppress it. Neither should a college preparing students to live in a contentious democracy.

On Lopez's evaluation form, Matteson wrote that proselytizing "is inappropriate in public school." If he's referring to himself and other teachers, he's correct. If he's referring to college students expressing their views in an open forum, he deserves a failing grade in Free Speech 101.

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