Lawsuit Filed by Professor Fired by San José City College in Nature/Nurture Case

By July 18, 2008

Torch readers might remember the case of June Sheldon, the San José City College biologist who was fired after she briefly discussed aspects of the nature-versus-nurture debate regarding sexual orientation and a student complained. Although Sheldon denied having said the wild things the student had accused her of saying, a weak investigation by her dean (without a proper hearing) led the dean to declare that Sheldon had not been teaching “science,” which led to Sheldon being fired.

FIRE wrote to the San José/Evergreen Community College District on February 6, 2008, to encourage the Board of Trustees not to approve Sheldon’s punishment for exercising her academic freedom. We noted that the district’s collective bargaining agreement promises academic freedom to its faculty:

Instructors have the right to study and investigate, to interpret their findings, and express conclusions. Instructors may present views that are controversial and may evaluate opinions held by others … (Section 4.6.4; emphasis added.)

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) and Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) assisted in Sheldon’s defense before the Board, but the Board upheld her termination. Now, ADF and PJI have filed a lawsuit against the San José/Evergreen Community College District. The ADF press release states the essence of the case:

On June 21, 2007, June Sheldon, an experienced adjunct professor teaching a human heredity course, answered a student’s question about how heredity affects homosexual behavior by citing the class textbook and a well-known German scientist. She noted that the scientist found a correlation between maternal stress and homosexual behavior in males but that the scientist’s views are only one set of theories in the nature-versus-nurture debate mentioned by the textbook. Sheldon explained that the class would learn in a later chapter of the textbook that homosexual behavior may be influenced by both genes and the environment.

The school launched an investigation after a different student in the class lodged an informal complaint that deemed Sheldon’s comments “offensive and unscientific.” Sheldon was later recommended for removal from the adjunct seniority rehire preference list and terminated by the district’s board of trustees on Feb. 13, 2008.

“Firing a teacher for responding to a student’s question with the truth is ridiculous,” said [ADF Litigation Staff Counsel David] Hacker. “The textbook itself points out that the causes of homosexual behavior are a subject of debate in the scientific community. This teacher did nothing more than explain this fact.”

A copy of the complaint is available here (FIRE’s letter is described on p. 18). The complaint names as defendants the district’s board and chancellor, the school’s president, the human resources officer who decided to terminate Sheldon (Anita Morris), and the dean who led the investigation (Leandra Martin). They are being sued on the ground of violating Sheldon’s First Amendment (speech) and Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection and due process) rights. Here’s the introduction to the complaint:

The cornerstone of public higher education is the freedom of professors to discuss competing theories and ideas in the classroom. This precious freedom, comprised of the freedom of speech and academic freedom, guards the faculty of public colleges and universities so that they can encourage students to ask innovative questions and then answer those questions with a variety of ideas and theories. Unfortunately, at San José/Evergreen Community College District (the District) these freedoms do not exist. When Plaintiff June Sheldon, an adjunct faculty member at San José City College (SJCC), answered a student’s science question during class, another student complained about being “offended” by the answer. Instead of protecting Ms. Sheldon’s right to answer the question, Defendants fired her.

That’s essentially how we see the case as well. Thanks to the ADF and PJI for taking up Sheldon’s case and defending academic freedom.

Schools: San Jose City College