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Fired Anti-Gay Biology Prof Wins Settlement--But Not Reinstatement

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Jul 29, 2010

A California college professor who was fired after being accused of homophobic remarks in the classroom has received a settlement of $100,000 from her former employer--but has not been reinstated.

June Sheldon lost her job as a professor at San Jose City College in early 2008, after an offended student level charges of homophobic remarks at her. A July 22 article at local newspaper Mercury News reported that the case never reached trial because both sides reached a settlement. One effect of that outcome is that no legal precedent has been set by the case.

Sheldon was represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, which is comprised of conservative Christian attorneys, and also by the Pacific Justice Institute. "The actions of San Jose City College in firing professor Sheldon were both outrageous and illegal," said the PJI's Brad Dacus. "This case is an alarming, all-too-real illustration of the insidious efforts under way on many college campuses to stifle alternative viewpoints."

"Professors shouldn't be fired simply for doing their jobs as educators," said ADF lawyer David J. Hacker. "Professionally addressing both sides of an academic issue according to the class curriculum is not grounds for dismissal; it's what a professor is supposed to do."

But some students rating Sheldon at MyProfessor.com indicated that Sheldon's lectures tended to incorporate personal anecdotes and opinions, the article said. "She has her agenda to push on us," one student claimed. while another posted the criticism that, "She wanders from coursework with personal stories." Others offered supportive remarks, while still referring to the "Fun... stories" that she would relate during class.

In the case of the episode in question, which transpired June 21, 2007, accounts vary. Sheldon says that she offered a scientific theory as to the causes of human homosexuality, citing both genetics and studies that suggest in utero hormone levels can affect a person's eventual sexual orientation before birth. The offended student, however, claims that Sheldon asserted that the in utero hormone levels only produced gay men, with lesbians being the result when "women just get tired of relationships with men." According to the student, Sheldon also made the claim that the Middle East had no gay population because of how well women there are treated by their spouses. The student also says that Sheldon suggested that men could avoid having gay sons by being sure to pamper their pregnant wives.

"A settlement doesn't establish any law" regarding First Amendment rights and free speech, according to Hank Greely, a professor of law at Yale.

"If she did have a First Amendment right" that was trampled by her firing, "it would have taken a trial to find out," affirmed Stanford's Pam Karlan, who also noted that, "In the classroom, you are protected if you give a presentation that is pedagogically responsible." Karlan added that, "You have a huge amount of rights in the classroom, but you need to stick to the subject."

Anti-gay religious site LifeSiteNews spun the story as a victory for "free speech," declaring in a July 26 article that, "The district had initially argued that its professors have no free speech rights in the classroom, but a federal court rejected that argument and determined that 'a teacher's instructional speech is protected by the First Amendment.' "

The site went on to clarify that the district's position was that Sheldon "is an employee and does not have a First Amendment cause of action for the Defendants' regulation of her in-class speech," meaning that, from the college's perspective, it was reasonable to require that professors stay on topic while delivering their comments during class time, and refrain from interjecting personal opinion in inappropriate ways.

Sheldon's conservative Christian representation attempted to depict that position as being a contradiction to the district's policy on "Academic Freedom," which reads, in part, "The common good depends on the free search for truth and its free expression; to this end, faculty and students hold the right of full freedom of inquiry and expression."

"So while the District promised freedom, it still wanted the right to censor and punish faculty for speech it disliked," Hacker declared. "This is a dangerous position that all faculty should be concerned about, lest they fall into the same trap as Professor Sheldon."

LifeSiteNews noted a similarity between Sheldon's case and that of Kenneth Howell, who was fired from the University of Illinois in Champaign after having emailed remarks about homosexuality to his students. Like Sheldon, Howell was a non-tenured professor, meaning that he had less job security than a tenured professor would have. Howell lost his job at the university after teaching his students that according to the Catholic conception of "Natural Moral Law," acts of sexual intimacy between consenting adults of the same gender are wrong.

Catholic news sites, including the Catholic News Agency, reported the firing of Kenneth Howell as a matter of suppression of free speech. However, the student who complained about the course material made a similar argument, saying that, "The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one's worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation."

Next: Gays and "Natural Moral Law"



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