UPDATE (Oct. 13, 2022): On Oct. 12, the San Diego Community College District responded to FIRE that the district’s “inquiry” had concluded without punishment and that the college district “has a deep commitment to an institutional culture that values and respects academic freedom.”
San Diego Mesa College is investigating a professor who teaches college-level classes for advanced high school students after parents complained about a writing prompt example that associated the Republican Party with fascism.
In a letter to SDMC today, we explained that the public college’s investigation violates the First Amendment, because the professor retains full academic freedom to select and discuss course material. Authorities cannot justify diluting or childproofing college-level material just because some high school students may take the course.
According to media reports, an unnamed SDMC professor teaching a dual enrollment class at Madison High School used as an example essay thesis: “As it is currently constituted, the Republican Party is now a fascist organization that no longer fits the category of a conventional Democratic party.”
To comply with its First Amendment obligations, SDMC must end its investigation.
The professor supported the example thesis using the terms “authoritarian,” “Trump,” “heterosexual,” “in group — white, christian,” and “hatred of foreigners / immigrants / minorities.” This led to complaints from students and parents, which in turn sparked an investigation by SDMC.
But as we told SDMC, laws restricting what material K-12 teachers may discuss are already being used, abused, and challenged across the country. Further, the law has been clear for decades that the First Amendment protects a far broader range of material at the college level, where faculty teach content geared toward adult students:
Absent the protections afforded by the First Amendment, college courses open to high school students or young college students would be subject to paternalistic censorship, chilling faculty members’ ability to select materials and tailor discussions to best serve their pedagogical interests. If left to stand, such restrictions could easily be abused, chilling the ability of college instructors to discuss any divisive topic, including those of race, sex, and gender. FIRE has already seen states attempt to erode such protections by passing “divisive concepts laws,” threatening faculty’s ability to teach certain topics, as well as critically acclaimed, core K-12 texts like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Catch 22,” and “The Things They Carried,” to name just a few.
Colleges across the country have partnered with high schools to offer advanced courses to high-performing students. However, this cannot be used to justify censorship of faculty or student expression — which receives increased protection at the college level.
Aggrieved parents may choose not to enroll their high schoolers in college-level courses, but the university may not prevent faculty and students in college courses from engaging with the pedagogically relevant material the professor selects.
To comply with its First Amendment obligations, SDMC must end its investigation into the professor’s course content.