Court says sexual harassment policy blocks students' First Amendment rights

CALIFORNIA — A federal district court ruled last week that theLos Angeles Community College District (LACCD) sexual harassment policy, whichalso governs campus speech, was overly broad in blocking students’ FirstAmendment rights.

The court upheld an injunction to prohibit the enforcement of the policy,paving the way for it to be debated in court to determine whether it goes toofar in prohibiting students from expressing themselves.

The LACCD policy, described by the prosecutor as “having a chillingeffect on speech,”became a topic of debate after a student at Los AngelesCommunity College, Jonathan Lopez, was prohibited from finishing a speakingassignment in his public speaking class. According to court documents, he wasspeaking on his religious views when his professor, John Matteson, cut him offand refused to allow him to finish his remarks.

“Matteson was operating pursuant to the college district’sspeech code, which prohibited students from engaging in offensive speech,”David Hacker, Lopez’s attorney, said. “It told students toself-censor their speech if they thought it might offend somebody, which isreally chilling to First Amendment rights of students on campus.”

The policy in question prohibits speech on campus that could create an”intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”

Hacker said the ruling of the case could have implications for speech codesall across California. The LACC based their policy on legislation enacted by thestate legislature, which provided suggested language for campus speech codes.The legislation, however, did not make it mandatory to adopt thatlanguage.

Lopez was censored on the grounds that his speech violated theschool’s dated speech code, which had been updated in 2007, but which wasstill posted online. Although the code was updated, even the new version hassome language which Lopez’s lawyer said is troubling.

“Mr. Lopez was concerned. After what happened to him, he wanted toensure that he would be able to speak freely and express his religious opinionson campus,”Hacker said. “What matters is that the policy exists andthat students have to comply with it or they could be subject topunishment.”

The United States District Court for the Central District of California,which upheld the injunction, said in its court order that a rule is not made anymore constitutional because similar language appears in other regulations.

“The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere morevital than in the community of American schools,”the order said, quotingprevious court decisions.

Kevin Jeter, in-house counsel for the LACCD, said the district is pursuingthe case because the wording in its speech code was based on California law. Thedebate is about the constitutionality of the speech code suggested by the statelegislature, he said.

“It has to do with whether or not the district was right in followingthe law,”Jeter said. “The question is; ‘can you be sued fordoing what the law tells you to do?’ I think the fundamental answer is no… even if the law is wrong.”

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, saidthe fact that other organizations, even government organizations, enforce a codedoes not mean it is constitutional or that it should be enforced inschools.

“This touches a nerve of conservative community members,”Goldstein said. “There’s a perception that the university is hostileto religious discussion — and this affirms that. It makes people lookbad.”

In addition to cutting Lopez off, Matteson called Lopez a “fascistbastard,”and wrote on his grading sheet for the speaking assignment thatLopez should “ask God what your grade is.”