SAN JOSE, Calif. â€“â€“ A San Jose City College professor fired for classroom comments about the origins of homosexuality will get $100,000 from the school in a legal settlement announced Thursday.
The incident also will be removed from June Sheldon’s transcript — but she won’t get her job back.
For two years, attorneys have battled over exactly what was said in Sheldon’s classroom on June 21, 2007, after a quiz in Human Heredity. The professor, whose cause was championed by an alliance of conservative Christian attorneys, acknowledged that she suggested a connection between an expectant mother’s stress and male homosexuality. But an offended student accused the instructor of offering her own, more extreme views, not suitable for classroom discussion.
The case was about whether the lecture was protected under the First Amendment? Was it science? Or an offensive personal opinion?
The settlement doesn’t answer those questions — it merely means that both sides agreed to stop fighting. Because the case didn’t go to trial, the U.S. District Court in San Jose couldn’t rule in either party’s favor.
“A settlement doesn’t establish any law,” said Stanford law professor Hank Greely. “It’s an interesting straw in the wind.” Professors have First Amendment rights in the classroom, said Pam Karlan, Stanford professor of public interest law. But they’re more limited than the rights as the man on the street — or the even rights of the same professor, in their scholarship.
“In the classroom, you are protected if you give a presentation that is pedalogically responsible,” said Karlan.
“The classroom is a place where teachers are hired to speak,” said Karlan. “So if I am hired to be an engineering professor, I don’t have the right to teach about music, or my political beliefs, except if they are connected to what I’ve been hired to teach. You have a huge amount of rights in the classroom, but you need to stick to the subject.”
According to Sheldon, she simply tried to explain the complexity behind the roots of homosexuality, saying that it may be influenced by both genes and the environment.
She contends she referred students to a genetic example mentioned in the textbook, as well as “the perspective of a German scientist who found a correlation between maternal stress, maternal androgens, and male sexual orientation at birth.” But a student — who filed a complaint about “offensive” conduct — heard something completely different.
The student alleged that Sheldon said maternal stress caused male homosexuality, and that “there aren’t any real lesbians — that women just get tired of relationships with men” Further, the student said, Sheldon stated, “there are hardly any gay men in the Middle East because the women are treated very nicely.” The student also said that Sheldon added this advice: If men wanted a strong son, they should treat their wives nicely; if they wanted a “sensitive” son, they should abuse their wives.
Comments on the popular website “Rate Your Professor,” where Sheldon scored a 2.3 of 5 for her 2007 instruction, seem to corroborate the student’s complaint. About half cited examples of Sheldon’s personal story-telling. “She has her agenda to push on us,” wrote one. “She has ridiculous personal opinions,” wrote another. Added another: “She wanders from coursework with personal stories.” After the incident, Sheldon was fired by the District’s Board of Trustees in February 2008; she sued in June.
Sheldon, a part-time professor without tenure, was defended by the Alliance Defense Fund, which describes itself as “ a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith.” That is the same group that sued to stop same sex marriage in California. They trumpeted the settlement, claiming triumph for teachers’ freedom of speech in the classroom.
“Professors shouldn’t be fired simply for doing their jobs as educators,” said ADF Litigation Staff Counsel David J. Hacker on Thursday. “Professionally addressing both sides of an academic issue according to the class curriculum is not grounds for dismissal; it’s what a professor is supposed to do.”
Brad Dacus of the Pacific Justice Institute, which joined in the litigation, said, “The actions of San Jose City College in firing Professor Sheldon were both outrageous and illegal. This case is an alarming, all-too-real illustration of the insidious efforts underway on many college campuses to stifle alternative viewpoints.”
Disagreeing, the San Jose Evergreen Community College District said Sheldon was not exonerated. They admitted no liability, and noted the Sheldon voluntarily agreed to dismiss her claims.
To know whether Sheldon was unjustly fired, “We would need to learn an awful lot more,” said Stanford expert Karlan. “If Sheldon said `Here is what scientists are thinking,’ that’s probably protected. But if she said `There aren’t any real lesbians or gay men in the Middle East,’ that isn’t protected.”
“If she did have a First Amendment right,” Karlan said, “it would have taken a trial to find out.”