California Court Misses the Point on Freedom of Conscience
August 17, 2006
by Samantha Harris
On Monday, a federal court in California issued what I find to be a disturbing opinion
addressing the freedom of conscience of an education student at San Jose State University (SJSU). Plaintiff Stephen M. Head is an education student at SJSU who self-identifies as “libertarian or conservative” and as a Christian. He filed a pro se
lawsuit (that is, representing himself without an attorney) against the university alleging, among other things, that his professor had violated his free speech rights by telling him that he was “unfit to teach” because of comments he made about immigration policy and by forbidding him from citing critics of multiculturalism in any of his classwork. (In writing the opinion, the court took all of plaintiff’s factual allegations as true and construed them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Therefore, for the purposes of criticizing the court’s reasoning, I am also assuming that plaintiff’s factual allegations are true.) Although plaintiff’s lawsuit did not include a grade dispute, plaintiff did receive an “F” in said class, a grade he believes was due to his refusal to stop espousing unpopular views.
The court held that the professor’s statement that plaintiff was “unfit to teach” did not infringe on his rights and, rather, was protected by the professor’s free speech rights. What the court utterly failed to address is the fact that the professor’s speech is evidence that the plaintiff was being evaluated on the basis of his political and ideological beliefs, in violation of his constitutionally protected (SJSU is a public university) right to freedom of conscience. The court also found no problem with the professor’s “ban on the use of sources critical of multiculturalism”—a clear violation of plaintiff’s right to academic freedom. SJSU’s own policy on Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility
states that “as teachers, faculty members…allow students to take reasoned exception to or to reserve judgment about the data or views offered in a course of study.” Similarly, SJSU’s Statement on Student Rights and Responsibilities
provides that “students are free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in courses of study” and that “the professor shall take no action to penalize students because of their opinions.”
As the U.S. Supreme Court has so eloquently stated, “[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette
, 319 U.S. 624 (1943). This right of private conscience was just dealt a serious blow by a court seemingly unconcerned by the serious allegation that a public university is requiring ideological orthodoxy among its education students.