Criminal charges possible for professors’ role in protest

November 5, 2009

The president of Southwestern College is facing criticism for placing four professors on paid academic leave following a protest over budget cuts, 10News reported.

A hearing with the teacher’s union and the San Diego Community College District was set for Monday, but it was cancelled, amid talk the situation may soon become a criminal matter.

The protest was held Thursday on the Southwestern College campus to dispute the college’s decision to cut classes next semester. It was peaceful, and school officials did not dispute that. They say it’s what happened after the rally that resulted in the disciplinary action of four professors, one of whom returned to teach on Monday.

There was no shortage of emotions around campus as students milled around the office of Dinorah Guadiana Acosta, one of the professors recently placed on paid administrative leave.

Student Laura Ortiz told 10News, "She had this motherly vibe. She cared so much about what she taught."Many students were upset about what happened to professors like Philip Lopez, who is now spending his days at home, reading, writing and researching.

Student Monica Briggs said, "I think that’s ridiculous because in America everyone should have their freedom of speech. There’s no reason to suspend a teacher."School officials said the professors weren’t placed on leave for their actions during the rally, which took place on a "free speech area" on campus. Instead, they said they are looking into what happened after the rally when the students moved over to the administrative office.

School officials said their concerns are threefold, and the actions being investigated include violations of college policies, like "inciting students to leave the free speech area, disregarding police direction and directly confronting police officers."

Vice President of Student Affairs Angelica Suarez said, "At this time charges have not been filed with the district attorney’s office, but that is an investigation that is currently ongoing."

The case is getting a lot of attention, even nationally. 10News obtained a letter, written by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, directed at the president of Southwestern College, Raj Chopra. In it, they said Southwestern College’s actions send the message that "speech that is unpopular with authorities is to be feared, restrained and monitored. FIRE is concerned you appear to be using the campus police to intimidate professors and students."

The school said there are two parallel investigations — one with the school, and one with the police. Depending on what they find, they said criminal charges could be filed as early as this week.Chopra went on vacation one day after the incident, and won’t return until Nov. 13.

10News learned several students are planning to hold another rally in front of campus on Thursday.