Professor Fired Over Offensive Views Of Homosexuality Gets $100,000 — But Not Her Job Back
Professors Pamela Karlan and Hank Greely are quoted in the San Jose Mercury News on the legality of instructors exercising their First Amendment rights in the classroom:
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?
"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 of the man on the street — or even the rights of the same professor in their scholarship.
"In the classroom, you are protected if you give a presentation that is pedagogically responsible," Karlan said.
"The classroom is a place where teachers are hired to speak," Karlan said. "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."
To know whether Sheldon was unjustly fired, "We would need to learn an awful lot more," said Stanford professor 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."