Victory for Academic Freedom: 'Human Heredity' Professor Receives $100,000 Settlement
July 26, 2010
Nearly three years after she was terminated over her protected classroom speech, the San José/Evergreen Community College District (SJCCD) has agreed to pay adjunct professor June Sheldon $100,000 in lost earnings in exchange for dismissal of her First Amendment lawsuit.
Sheldon's trouble began in the summer of 2007 when, in her Human Heredity course at San José City College, she led a brief discussion on sexual orientation. The topic was covered in the course readings. When a student asked her to comment on the nature/nurture debate regarding sexual orientation, Sheldon noted the complexity of the issue, citing examples from the textbook as well as relevant research findings. A student complained a month later that the material was "offensive and unscientific."
Dean of Mathematics and Science Leandra Martin then launched an investigation into Sheldon's comments by surveying other science faculty about the state of the nature/nurture debate among experts. All of the faculty members agreed that the nature/nurture question was complex, but Martin still concluded that Sheldon was teaching non-scientific material as science. Martin then withdrew SJCCD's offer for her to teach further courses. On December 18, 2007, SJCCD Vice Chancellor of Human Resources Anita Morris wrote Sheldon a termination letter, citing Sheldon's relevant and protected classroom expression.
In a statement she submitted in her defense, Sheldon addressed the student's allegations and demonstrated the failures of due process in her case.
FIRE wrote to then-SJCCD Board of Trustees President Richard K. Tanaka on February 6, 2008, asking that the finding and punishment against Sheldon be reversed. The Board did not respond but upheld the termination at a subsequent hearing. On July 16, 2008, the Alliance Defense Fund and attorneys from the Pacific Justice Institute filed a lawsuit against the district and several administrators involved in her case. Her case cleared an important legal hurdle in November 2009, when a federal district court dismissed the district's claim that Sheldon had no First Amendment rights in the classroom, rejecting the district's application of the Supreme Court's 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos to her case.
Finally, last week, on July 21, 2010, the district agreed to compensate Sheldon $100,000 in lost wages and to remove her termination from her file. That money, of course, comes courtesy of California's taxpayers, who are also on the hook for the district's legal fees in addition to the settlement.
As Adam Kissel noted in today's press release, "The district had better things to spend its money on than fighting a First Amendment lawsuit against a professor who was just doing her job." Indeed, it did, and SJCCD is not the first educational institution to learn this lesson the hard way this year. The University of Wyoming recently spent more than $86,000 in legal fees—including the plaintiffs' legal fees—after its ill-fated attempt to prevent education professor William Ayers from speaking on campus, which resulted in a lawsuit brought by Ayers and a UW student.
Torch readers will know that FIRE recently has intervened in a similar academic freedom case in Illinois, where University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) adjunct professor Kenneth Howell was not rehired after a student complained regarding his teaching about the Catholic position on sexual conduct in his Introduction to Catholicism course. Hopefully, UIUC is paying careful attention to the outcome of Sheldon's case and the price tag involved when a college violates a professor's First Amendment rights.
SJCCD, meanwhile, still has not acknowledged any wrongdoing in Sheldon's case; indeed, it gives no indication that it has learned any lesson from this expensive debacle. FIRE is pleased that Sheldon can finally put this ordeal behind her, but the district's demonstrated ignorance of the First Amendment and academic freedom ensures that we will be keeping our eye on it in the future.