EMT Instructor Deemed Insufficiently ‘Sensitive to Diversity’ Vindicated; Settlement Reached
LOS ANGELES, April 14, 2014—A paramedics instructor at Antelope Valley College (AVC) has vindicated his First Amendment rights after being threatened with discipline for allegedly demonstrating insufficient “sensitivity to diversity” in class.
AVC settled with veteran paramedic and tenured instructor Lance Hodge after a federal judge found that his 2010 lecture about the unusual cultural practices paramedics might encounter “clearly … involved matters of public concern” and allowed Hodge’s First Amendment retaliation lawsuit to proceed to trial. Hodge came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help in 2011 and was represented by FIRE Legal Network attorney Arthur Willner of the Los Angeles firm Gladstone Michel Weisberg Willner & Sloane, ALC.
“Lance Hodge’s experiences as an EMT in the field inform and enrich his teaching,” said Will Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy. “When Antelope Valley College sought to punish Hodge because of this valuable real-world insight, both FIRE and a highly skilled member of our Legal Network were ready to come to his aid.”
Hodge has taught courses in Emergency Medical Technology at AVC for over two decades. In an attempt to prepare students for the challenges that await beyond the classroom, Hodge’s lectures include discussions of his experiences from the more than 15,000 emergency calls he has responded to in his 30-year career.
In an April 2010 class attended by Dean of Health Sciences Karen Cowell, Hodge advised students they might encounter “witch stuff” in the field. Hodge described “weird” cultural practices that he had responded to as an EMT, including the placing of heated coins on an individual’s body and the ingestion of a woman’s placenta after childbirth.
Cowell characterized these remarks as “inappropriate and disrespectful to the cultural beliefs of patients” and determined that his “sensitivity to diversity” required “improvement.” AVC required Hodge to write a paper on “discrimination” and to prepare a lesson plan for “a one-hour class on cultural diversity.” Hodge’s 27-page paper was accepted, but his lesson plan, titled “Political correctness vs. the real world: The EMT and professionalism in the face of offensive language or behavior and our understanding of stereotyping and prejudice,” was rejected. Shane Turner, AVC’s Vice President of Human Resources, informed Hodge that he would face “disciplinary action” if he delivered the lesson plan.
Hodge contacted FIRE, which wrote AVC President Jackie L. Fisher in March 2011 about the threat to Hodge’s First Amendment rights. Following an unsatisfactory April 2011 response from an attorney representing AVC and another letter from FIRE, FIRE Legal Network attorney Arthur Willner filed suit on Hodge’s behalf in federal district court.
In his February 2014 order, United States District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez allowed Hodge’s First Amendment retaliation claim to proceed. Following the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s recent ruling in Demers v. Austin, which clarified the boundaries of First Amendment protection for faculty speech related to teaching and scholarship, Judge Gutierrez found that both Hodge’s lecture and his lesson plan involved matters of public concern. Gutierrez concluded that Hodge’s “interest in training future EMTs to perform safely and effectively when responding to emergency calls in the community … override[s] [AVC’s] interest in regulating his speech.”
Earlier this month, before proceeding to trial to determine whether AVC’s punishments of Hodge technically constituted an “adverse employment action,” AVC and Hodge settled the case. AVC will pay half of Hodge’s legal fees and Hodge remains tenured faculty at AVC.
“It should be very clear by now that administrators who attempt to muzzle the speech of instructors will not be tolerated by the courts,” said Hodge. “Cases like this will make it more costly in the future for institutions who are slow learners when it comes to the First Amendment.”
“After two years of litigation, I am very pleased with the court’s determination that Mr. Hodge’s classroom speech on matters related to public safety and the performance and training of first responders is protected by the First Amendment,” said Willner. “It is in the interests of the students, faculty and the community at large to foster the free and open discussion of these issues.”
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 on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.
Will Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org