June Sheldon was an adjunct professor at San José City College (SJCC). In the summer of 2007, she taught a Human Heredity course that explored the role of genetics in different disciplines like medicine and agriculture as well as an overview of the biology of human genetics.
Prompted by a question on a pop quiz, a student asked Ms. Sheldon how heredity affects homosexual behavior in males and females. Ms. Sheldon, knowing the topic would be covered in a future class, prefaced her answer by noting that the issue was very complex and that there was still much debate and many theories on the subject of “nature verses nurture” in regard to homosexuality. She gave the students an example found in the course textbook and referred the students to the perspective of a German scientist named Dr. Gunter Dörner.
A few months later, Ms. Sheldon received an email from the dean of the math and science division of SJCC notifying her that a student complaint was received and that she needed to meet with the dean to discuss the subject of the complaint. The complaint claimed that Ms. Sheldon’s comments in regard to the question asked during class were off topic of the course subject matter, highly offensive, and unscientific. The school launched an investigation into the complaint.
Meanwhile, on her own accord, and to show her dedication to teaching and her students, Ms. Sheldon attended a class on teaching to a diverse culture of students.
Once the investigation of the student complaint concluded, the dean wrote a letter stating that Ms. Sheldon had taught misinformation as science and that her statements were “grievous enough to warrant withdrawing her SRP (Seniority Rehire Preference) status and Spring 08 assignment.” (Ms. Sheldon had accepted a teaching assignment with SJCC during the investigation.) The matter was then referred to the school’s HR department that then terminated Ms. Sheldon’s employment after a board of trustees’ approval.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Sheldon.
SJCC has an Academic Freedom Policy that states that instructors have the right to “study and investigate, interpret his/her findings and express resulting conclusions to students…[T]he instructor may present views which are controversial and evaluate opinions held by others while simultaneously respecting and valuing their right of their free expression.” The policy also states that “The common good depends on the free search for truth and its free expression; to this end, faculty and students hold the right of full freedom of inquiry and expression.”
The school claimed that because Ms. Sheldon was an employee of the school, the school could regulate her speech while performing her assigned tasks and that she did not have the protection of the First Amendment while speaking in class.
ADF Senior Legal Counsel David Hacker said, ““Professors shouldn’t be fired simply for doing their jobs as educators. 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.”
In July 2010, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys secured a settlement with SJCC on behalf of Ms. Sheldon, in which the district agreed to remove Sheldon’s termination from her employment record and pay her $100,000 for lost work. As a result, the lawsuit was dismissed.