Victory for Academic Freedom: ‘Human Heredity’ Professor Receives $100,000 Settlement

July 26, 2010

SAN JOSÉ, Calif., July 26, 2010—Nearly three years after terminating her 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. In 2007, Sheldon had led a brief discussion about the nature/nurture debate regarding sexual orientation in her Human Heredity course. After she was fired due to a student complaint, she turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

"This welcome settlement demonstrates that colleges cannot get away with punishing a professor for teaching relevant class material, even if a student finds it offensive," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "Professor Sheldon is finally able to put this ordeal behind her, but the district’s ignorance of academic freedom and the First Amendment has left the taxpayers of California on the hook for over $100,000."

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 the district’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 Sheldon’s 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. The district also has left taxpayers to pay its legal fees. It has not, however, acknowledged its violation of Sheldon’s rights.

"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," said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. "Unfortunately, SJCCD has given us no reason to believe it has learned its lesson. FIRE will continue to monitor free speech and academic freedom in the district and nationwide."

FIRE recently has intervened in a similar academic freedom case in Illinois, where University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 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.

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty in the San José/Evergreen Community College District and at campuses nationwide can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; adam@thefire.org