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Fired Calif. professor exonerated in settlement of lawsuit against San Jose college district

Case settles after court affirms teachers’ First Amendment rights in the classroom
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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Alliance Defense Fund attorneys have reached a settlement with the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District in a lawsuit filed on behalf of a biology professor. Professor June Sheldon was fired after objectively answering a student’s in-class question simply because a different student claimed to be “offended” by her answer, even though it comported with the official class curriculum and a district policy on academic freedom.

ADF attorneys agreed to dismiss the suit because the district has agreed to remove Sheldon’s termination from her record and pay her $100,000 for lost work. The district argued that its professors have no free speech rights in the classroom, but a federal court rejected that argument and determined that “a teacher’s instructional speech is protected by the First Amendment.” Sheldon is now teaching at a different college.

“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,” said ADF Litigation Staff Counsel David J. Hacker.  “This is a favorable settlement for Ms. Sheldon, but we remain concerned, for the sake of all faculty members, about the district’s view of academic freedom, as expressed in court, in contradiction to its policy.”

Sheldon, an experienced adjunct professor who taught a human heredity course at San Jose City College, answered a student’s inquiry in June 2007 about how heredity affects homosexual behavior. She briefly introduced positions on both sides of the issue that was to be explored in a later class. In her response, she cited the class textbook, as well as the research of a well-known German scientist referred to by a website provided in the textbook, explaining that the issue is currently being debated in the scientific community. The school launched an investigation after a different student lodged an informal complaint that deemed Sheldon’s comments “offensive and unscientific.” Sheldon was recommended for removal from the adjunct seniority rehire preference list and terminated by the district’s board of trustees in February 2008.

The district’s “Academic Freedom” policy states, “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. Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research.  Freedom is fundamental to the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student in learning.... The instructor has the right to study and investigate, interpret his/her findings and express resulting conclusions to students.... Because human knowledge is limited and changeable, the instructor may present views which are controversial and evaluate opinions held by others while simultaneously respecting and valuing their right of their free expression.”

At the same time, the district argued in a brief that Sheldon “is an employee and does not have a First Amendment cause of action for the Defendants’ regulation of her in-class speech” and that the district “must be able to control the in class conduct and speech of those teachers.”

ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit Sheldon v. Dhillon in June 2008 with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division. Kevin Snider and Matt McReynolds of Pacific Justice Institute, two of nearly 1,800 attorneys in the ADF alliance, also represented Sheldon in the suit.

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.