How one student’s classroom ordeal became an inspiration for other Christian students
Curiously, in polls of people’s worst fears, public speaking consistently makes the top 10. Curiously, because unlike most other major phobias (flying, falling, spiders, snakes) this one involves no threat of physical harm. It springs, apparently, from the same deep-down insecurities that make us balk at trying something new, or blanch at the sound of our voice on a recording.
We don’t want to be embarrassed. We don’t want to look or sound foolish … by saying something stupid, or saying something valid in a vacuous way.
Despite—or perhaps, because of—the fear, college students across America sign up by the hundreds of thousands every semester for speech courses. They take their turns at the lecture hall podiums, knowing every oration is a chance to overcome that unnerving insecurity … and unlock that poise and skill of communication that we all dream is within us.
Of course, every speech is also a chance for the mortifying nightmare to come true. That’s why so much depends on the speech instructor, and his ability to coach and coax students out of their shells and fears and into a measure of confidence, even eloquence.
For a while, working his way through a speech class at Los Angeles City College (LACC), Jonathan Lopez was convinced he had a particularly good instructor. The man was witty, inspiring, full of practical advice. Then came the day Jonathan gave the speech that meant the most to him of anything he’d prepared all semester—and he found not only that his teacher had a dark side … but that he had Jonathan by the throat.
That fall, Jonathan was 21 and working hard at finishing the requirements for a general education degree at LACC. He was also growing in a newfound faith, having become a Christian just a year earlier, the last in his family to make that life-changing decision.
“I didn’t grow up in a Christian household,” he says. But, one by one, over time, his mother, sister, and then brother came to faith. “I was the hard-headed one. My mom prayed for me for years—years. I didn’t want to have anything to do with church, anything to do with God.”
Still, he went to church, and to camp each year with the youth group, “to get my mom off my back.” And, to his considerable annoyance, God, like his mother, nagged at Jonathan’s heart.
“I would just feel God speak to me, you know? Tugging on
me. I was so hard-headed. Actually, my head was clear—my heart was hard.” One year, at camp, a friend offered to pray with him, to ask Christ into his heart. “I wouldn’t hear it,” Jonathan says.
A year later, back at camp, the “tugging” had grown even stronger. “I prayed and told Jesus that if someone would offer to pray with me again, this time I would do it. I asked Him to send someone to ask me. He did—the same friend from a year before. This time, I prayed with him.”
He laughs, remembering something his mother often said: “The harder the conversion, the more it will ‘take.’” Jonathan’s took. Worship and the truths of the Bible began to take on growing importance in his life, and increasingly informed his view of the culture around him.
"I wasn’t trying to get attention. I just needed to speak up for my faith.”
That culture was changing dramatically as he took up his studies at LACC in the fall of 2008. Marriage, in particular, was much in the headlines, as Californians prepared for an electoral showdown on Proposition 8, a voter initiative to amend the state constitution to define marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman.
In November, the amendment passed, and the vote was a topic of considerable discussion on the LACC campus. For students in Jonathan’s speech class, the nature of that conversation changed on the morning after the election, when their instructor, John Matteson, walked in, slammed his papers down on his desk, and announced that anyone in the room who had voted for Proposition 8 was “a fascist bastard.”
“He was so mad, he dismissed class,” Jonathan says. Like the other students, he was stunned by Matteson’s words and manner. “Up to that point, when he came in that day, I could honestly say he was a good instructor. I enjoyed the way he taught, his sense of humor.” With Matteson’s help, Jonathan had begun to “feel a lot more confident giving speeches.”
Confident enough that he decided his next talk would address the subject of Matteson’s outburst.
The assignment was simple and straightforward: an informative speech, six to eight minutes long, mostly memorized, on any subject. “No criteria, no restrictions, nothing,” Jonathan remembers. “He said, ‘It’s open, whatever you want.’”
Two thoughts went into Jonathan’s choice of subject. First, his newfound faith.
“What better to inform people about than God, right?” he says. Knowing he would be graded down for any effort to turn an “informative” speech into a “persuasive” one, Jonathan carefully crafted his speech to describe his own experiences, not advocate his views. “I wasn’t saying this is the way. I wasn’t trying to tell people to come to church with me. I wanted to keep it simple.”
He resolved just to tell the class of his salvation experience, and share Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” But he also wanted to address, indirectly, Matteson’s derogatory comment about those in the class—including Jonathan—who had voted “yes” on Proposition 8.
“I decided to put the definition of marriage from the dictionary into my speech. I felt like it was my responsibility to speak up for those that didn’t speak up that day—including myself.”
Jonathan’s turn came a few weeks after Professor Matteson’s fit. He was ready for anything except what happened.
Jonathan devoted the first half of his speech to telling how God had impacted his life; Matteson, apparently, “didn’t have a problem with that.” But when Jonathan began reading the dictionary definition of marriage—the legal union of a man and a woman—things quickly changed.
“He started mumbling, in the back of the room,” Jonathan says. As Matteson’s murmuring continued, growing louder and louder, “I actually asked him if he would mind lowering his voice, because he was being disrespectful—this was my time to speak.”
At that, the professor exploded. Loudly repeating the epithet of a few weeks before, he denounced Jonathan and announced that his speech was over. Confused, Jonathan reminded him that he still had half of his time left to go.
“No!” Matteson shouted. He announced that anyone who’d been offended by the speech was free to leave. No one moved. Some students, in fact, asked to hear the rest of what Jonathan had to say. “Don’t listen to him,” they said. “Just keep going.” Matteson, though, would have none of it.
"Ask God what your grade is."
“This speech is over!” he repeated. “Class dismissed!” Two or three students bolted for the door. The rest milled out slowly, several of them offering encouraging words to Jonathan, who moved toward the back of the room to get his evaluation sheet from Matteson. The instructor handed it to him, facedown. Jonathan turned it over as he walked toward the door.
“Ask God what your grade is,” Matteson had written.
“Hey, don’t put your head down,” a friend said, seeing Jonathan’s dejection. “You did good.” In fact, he says, he received “a lot of positive feedback.” Outside of class, many students approached him who had also voted “yes” on Proposition 8. “A lot of them were offended” by Professor Matteson’s remarks, Jonathan says, “but they didn’t do anything about it. So when I gave my speech and then the incident occurred, a lot of them actually came to me and told me that it took a lot of courage to do what I did, and that they were grateful that I did it.”
Jonathan knew, too, that a few students were offended—though none of them said anything to him personally.
“Sometimes, when people disagree with you—especially if you have a really strong opinion about something—you just feel offended. One or two students, maybe, were offended, because of the definition of marriage. Sometimes the truth offends people—but just because it may offend somebody doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to say it.
“I knew it was something I was supposed to do,” Jonathan says. “When (Matteson) dismissed class and cancelled—pretty much censored—my speech, I had a little doubt, thinking to myself, ‘Did I do the right thing? Did I go about it the right
way?’ But that was very minimal. I felt that what I did had to be done, and for the most part, I felt that was the way it needed to be done.”
Unfortunately, Professor Matteson was not a man to let bygones be bygones. Not long after Jonathan’s speech, he and another student arrived late for class. Not realizing someone was speaking, they slipped in the door, interrupting a speech. Jonathan apologized to the class, but Matteson immediately singled him out for ridicule and reproach. Being so rude, the instructor said, “was not very Christian of you.” Jonathan said nothing.
“It was hard,” he says. “Really hard.” Things didn’t get any easier, in the days that followed, as Matteson continued to deride Jonathan before the other students at every opportunity.
“He would always have remarks in class,” Jonathan says. “It was like he made it his mission to the end of the semester to keep attacking me. I didn’t know whether I should keep going to class or not, because I didn’t want to go through that embarrassment any more. I wanted to just avoid another confrontation. But if I didn’t go, I would get an incomplete, so all that hard work—all those speeches that I had done already—would have been for nothing. I had to finish.”
Jonathan decided to tell the college dean what was happening. To his surprise, she didn’t seem especially concerned, suggesting only that he document his complaint with some signatures from other students. She made no offer to investigate his assertions or confront Matteson herself.
Even worse, the dean’s office was directly across the hall from Professor Matteson’s classroom. Matteson saw the two talking and shortly afterward confronted Jonathan in the hallway.
“He got in my face,” Jonathan says. “I thought he was going to put his hands on me. He said he was going to make it his mission to expel me from school.”
For Jonathan, that was the final provocation. When a friend contacted Alliance Defending Freedom on his behalf, and told him they might be able to offer legal help, Jonathan made the call. Although he dreaded the thought of a lawsuit, “Something needs to be done,” he decided. “Instructors can’t just do things like this. It’s not right.”
After conferring with his family, and considerable prayer, “I decided to go that road.”
“I felt like it was my responsibility to speak up for those that didn’t speak up that day—
ADF connected Jonathan with David Hacker, senior legal counsel and director of the ministry’s University Project, created to defend the legal rights and religious freedom of Christian students all over America. David sent demand letters to LACC, detailing what had been happening in Professor Matteson’s class and urging administrators to correct the problem.
“In the letter the dean sent back to us,” David says, “she said that other students had been offended by what Jonathan said regarding marriage, and by his Christian beliefs. She wasn’t saying that what the professor did was wrong.” In effect, he says, she was “justifying the professor’s actions” while ignoring Jonathan’s constitutional right to free speech.
ADF filed a federal lawsuit against the college, its administrators, and Professor Matteson, asking the court to put a stop to the instructor’s behavior, and address the college’s unconstitutional speech code that facilitated that behavior.
“The college actually had a policy that said, ‘If you believe what you are going to say is going to be offensive to someone, don’t say it,’” David says. “So the college was already telling students to self-censor their speech, and that’s what caused this whole incident.
“Policies like this are on the books on college campuses all across the country,” David says, “and just the fact that they are on the books, and in student handbooks, chills student speech. Students read, ‘If you think you’re going to say something offensive, don’t say it,’ and then they self-censor their speech. They don’t share their ideas. They don’t feel free to do so.”
ADF asked the federal court to block LACC from enforcing its speech policy, and the court did. The college appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which ruled that the connection between the speech policy and what happened to Jonathan wasn’t sufficiently clear to justify compelling the college to change its speech code. ADF asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review that decision, but the high court declined.
That wasn’t the end of the case, though. ADF went back to the district court, asking it to rule in Jonathan’s favor and compel Professor Matteson to stop his outrageous behavior in the classroom—and the court did just that. It entered a judgment against Matteson for abusing his student’s free speech rights, and awarded Jonathan damages for the violation of those rights.
“I was pleased with that,” Jonathan says, “even though it was never about the money. It was more about defending my faith. I was really glad that there was acknowledgement that the instructor did do wrong, that he did violate my rights … and that other believers can speak up now, and feel comfortable about speaking up.”
“Jonathan’s case had far-reaching effects,” David says. “It was covered in the national media, (and) a lot of people paid attention because the facts were so egregious. Certainly other schools noticed the inherent wrong in a professor singling out a student just because of his faith, and punishing him.” The incident and ensuing lawsuit also caught the attention of other college students nationwide, many of whom contacted ADF with their own experiences of persecution for their faith and denial of their constitutionally protected speech and religious freedom.
“We’re able to tell Jonathan’s story to those students,” David says, “and how he stood up boldly to protect his religious liberty and defend his faith, and those students have been encouraged and are more willing to stand up for their rights.”
Despite all the attention his case received, though, Jonathan studiously avoided the limelight, refusing all requests for interviews, from the school newspaper to national cable news outlets.
“I didn’t want my face out there,” he says, “because it wasn’t about me. I wasn’t trying to get attention or anything like that. I just needed to speak up for my faith.
“Everyone has the right to say, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ so why don’t I have the right to say, ‘I believe in God?’ I felt that this is something God put in me to do, and I did it for Him. I knew in my heart that it had nothing to do with me.”
The semester of his confrontations with Jonathan was Professor Matteson’s last on the LACC campus. Whether he was dismissed or left of his own accord, Jonathan doesn’t know. He does know that, in the end, the college gave him credit for the speech course he endured to the end. His final grade was an “A.”
Early in 2014—six years after the incident—Jonathan’s sister told him she’d seen a movie about what happened to him, and that Jonathan’s name was in the closing credits. The film, God’s Not Dead, was based on several cases involving Alliance Defending Freedom, including the one at LACC. Eventually, Jonathan saw the movie himself.
“It kind of brought back feelings,” he says … long-buried emotions from the moments he faced a professor’s anger and abuse. But it also reminded him why he spoke up in the first place, and what the long years of the court case were all about. “It was very, very rewarding,” he says. “The first time I actually felt proud of myself.”
In other words, for that speech, Jonathan Lopez doesn’t have to ask God what his grade is.