The Los Angeles Community College District is being sued by a pupil who claims unfair discrimination and a violation of his right to freedom of expression by a college professor who, after the pupil made a speech in class expressing his religious views against gay marriage, called him a “fascist bastard” and refused to grade him.
The Details of the Freedom of Speech Case
The LA Times reports that Jonathon Lopez was heard to quote several biblical passages as well as citing a dictionary definition of marriage being between a man and a woman before then elaborating on his personal views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. He was giving a speech as part of a college class working toward an associate art degree. The professor in charge of the class, John Matteson, interrupted his speech, calling him a “fascist bastard”, and refused to let Lopez continue.
When Lopez asked Matteson for his mark on the speech, the federal suit filed last week goes on to state that Matteson told Lopez to “ask God”. The suit also alleges that Matteson threatened to have Lopez expelled if he reported the incident to senior college staff. Lopez’s case against Los Angeles Community College is being backed by The Alliance Fund, a Christian group that petitioned for the names of those who donated to the Yes On Proposition 8 campaign to have their identities kept secret, a measure that was unsuccessful.
As well as monetary compensation, Lopez and his lawyers are seeking to have a code that allows the College to forbid students from making statements deemed as being “offensive” retired, as, they say, it prevents true freedom of speech under the First Amendment.
Two students also reported the incident as being “deeply offensive”, especially given the timeframe in which the speech was made, being just days after the passing of Proposition 8. One student had even been heard to say Lopez was “preaching hate”. The Dean of the college, Allison Jones, said that she had taken the report very seriously but had to consider all sides of the argument and so could not comment at the present time but added that Mr. Matteson, Lopez’s professor, would be internally disciplined after a review was carried out.
David J Hacker, one of Lopez’s lawyers, refutes that there is an issue of Mr. Lopez having aired his views inappropriately, saying, “Basically, colleges and universities should give Christian students the same rights to free expression as other students”.
The Lopez Case and Bigger Issue of Gay Rights Verses Freedom Of Speech
Lopez’s exact speech has yet to be released to the public, however, this case raises an old dilemma on the subject of freedom of speech and how far that extends when discussing issues of morality and ethics, especially when considering gay rights and religions that are diametrically opposed to anything other than a heteronormative way of being. So, when does free speech become hate speech?
For that matter, what is classed as hate speech? Webster’s New World Law Dictionary defines hate speech as “Speech not protected by the First Amendment, because it is intended to foster hatred against individuals or groups based on race, religion, gender, sexual preference, place of national origin, or other improper classification.” (Webster’s New World Law Dictionary; 2009 Your Dictionary; 17 February 2009)
However, this definition does nothing on its own to clear up the conflict between gay rights versus a literal interpretation of the bible offered as an opinion. But, from this definition we can derive that the line between the two, whilst still being subjective, must come down to the context in which the speech is offered and the type of language used in expressing the opinion being made.
An Example of Hate Speech In Action
For instance, the way Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-gay organization you may remember from earlier posts in this blog, who staunchly oppose homosexuality to the point of picketing roadsides, funerals and plays, and using slogans such as “God Hates Fags”, are clearly trying to be incendiary. Their message that homosexuality is wrong, whilst originating from a viewpoint that, under the First Amendment, they have all validity in expressing, is marred by a clear undercurrent of spite and provocation and is demonstrated in a manner clearly designed to promote and provoke volatile action. The label of hate speech is easily applied in this instance.
But taking the case of Jonathon Lopez versus the Los Angeles Community College, there are certain doubts that creep in. Firstly, until the full facts of the case, including Lopez’s actual speech, become public, no judgment can really be passed on the nature of the speech itself. All we can be clear about is that, by Lopez’s admission, the speech expressed an opinion against gay marriage and stated homosexuality was a sin.
We may question Lopez’s motives in making a speech against gay marriage just days after the passing of Proposition 8. We may even say that it was crass and showed a lack of maturity and, indeed, respect for his fellow classmates, some of whom were clearly upset by his remarks, as was the college professor who, it seems, reacted in an overtly emotive and perhaps inappropriate manner about a subject that was clearly important to him.
But does it constitute hate speech when, in affect, you create a public forum that has the purpose of hearing persuasive and compelling arguments on topics that were neither stipulated nor restricted, for someone to then return with a view contrary to your own?
In my opinion, that on its own can not be held up to the light as an example of hate speech. If Lopez drew on negative stereotypes and reinforced his points with clearly skewed statistics, building a case solely on prejudice, then that would have certainly fallen closer to that bracket, but until reports identify the contrary, we must assume that he did not.
I would say that it may have been an inappropriate choice of topic for the time and setting of the discussion, but that is a discretionary matter that the professor in charge could and should have dealt with in a manner appropriate for his title. I would also ask what kind of Christian chooses that point in time to make such an address, given that such an action could hardly be considered loving when, one supposes, he knew that feelings had been deeply hurt by Proposition 8’s passage.
As for the actual nature of Lopez’s remarks, well, that remains to be seen. But, did Lopez have the right to express his view that gay marriage was wrong? Yes, if it was done in the same way, say, that a person might express the opinion that marriage itself is wrong from a scientific standpoint. It is when opinion becomes attack that the cauldron of hate is stirred.
At any length, we can be sure that Lopez versus the Los Angeles Community College will be a decisive case in reinterpreting the First Amendment for our present societal circumstances and what it means, in this day and age, to have freedom of speech in an in tandem with diversity, but it is as a final note that I add, it is imperative that the integrity of the First Amendment be kept alive, not for those of a particular religion, nor just for those seeking gay rights, but for civil rights as a whole.