This week the ADF Center for Academic Freedom settled Professor June Sheldon’s lawsuit against the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District, a college that has been fraught with corruption charges lately.  Professor Sheldon sued the District two years ago after it terminated her employment because an anonymous student complained that she was offended by how Sheldon answered a student’s question in class.  In exchange for dropping the lawsuit, the District paid Ms. Sheldon $100,000 and expunged her personnel file from all charges of wrongdoing.

Professor Sheldon has taught college-level science courses for over 20 years.  In 2007, she taught human heredity at San Jose City College.  During one particular class, a student asked her how heredity affects homosexual behavior.  Professor Sheldon answered the student by discussing briefly both positions on the topic—as discussed in the course textbook—and mentioned the research of a well-known German scientist referred to in a website provided in the textbook.  A month later the District received an anonymous, informal complaint, which it claimed a student submitted.  The complaint stated that Sheldon’s answer to the student’s question about homosexual behavior was “offensive.”  The District then launched an “investigation” and found that Sheldon’s statements were “offensive and unscientific.”  The District’s board of trustees fired her in February 2008 because of what she said in the classroom. 

ADF filed suit on behalf of Professor Sheldon in July 2008.  The District asked the federal district court to dismiss the lawsuit, citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Ceballos v. Garcetti for the proposition that public employees, including faculty at public colleges, have no right to free speech when performing their job duties, including teaching.  (My colleagues and I have written at length about the perils of the Garcetti decision here, here and here.) 

While District argued that Professor Sheldon’s in-class speech was not protected by the First Amendment and that the District has the right to regulate it, even after the fact, the District’s academic freedom policy allegedly protected the faculty’s right to free expression in the classroom: 

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. Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research.  Freedom is fundamental to the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student in learning…. The instructor has the right to study and investigate, interpret his/her findings and express resulting conclusions to students…. Because human knowledge is limited and changeable, the instructor may present views which are controversial and evaluate opinions held by others while simultaneously respecting and valuing their right of their free expression. 

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

The court rejected the District’s Garcetti arguments, refused to dismiss the case, and held that “a teacher’s instructional speech is protected by the First Amendment.”  This is one of a handful of rulings nationwide that addresses Garcetti in the classroom and will provide protection to many faculty in the future. 

Professor Sheldon stood courageously to protect her First Amendment rights in the college classroom.  The settlement pays her $100,000 and exonerates her teaching record.  But the District’s unwillingness to embrace its proclamations of academic freedom is yet another example of the underlying hostility to free speech in the Academy.  Professor Sheldon is not the only professor to have been discriminated against for her speech, but the legal precedent she established and the settlement will no doubt cause administrators to think twice when they try to shut down the “marketplace of ideas” in the future.