Free speech at college: 'You can't do that here'

Christopher J. Schweickert
Should the government discipline college students for private, consensual, non-disruptive . . . prayer?  A publicly-funded college has wasted taxpayer dollars fighting for the right to prohibit private prayer. 

Two years ago, a student prayed with a sick teacher at the College of Alameda, near San Francisco, in a private shared office.  Another teacher couldn't tolerate the obscene sight and interrupted the prayer, angrily demanding, "You can't be doing that in here!"  Not content to let the shocked student simply back away from the surprising verbal assault and return to a friend outside, the teacher physically followed her out to repeat his angry demand.

It could have ended there, but it didn't.  The teacher rushed off an email full of misstatements, asking "How can I address this situation without appearing religiously intolerant?"  Without further inquiry, the busy administrator dutifully issued form notices of intent to suspend both of the students for disruptive conduct.  The notices arrived the day before Christmas.  At the hearings which followed, the administrator started by asking each student, "Why don't you tell me why you're here?"

The students were not amused.  First angry intolerance of prayer; then shocking suspension notices; now innocent-until-proven guilty hearings.  To top it off, the administrator dug in and followed up the hearings with written warnings again threatening suspension or expulsion.

This was too much.  The students contacted Pacific Justice Institute, whose attorneys sent several letters advising the College of the students' First Amendment rights.  But the College blithely ignored the letters.  So the students filed suit in federal court.  

The College fought back and tried to get the suit dismissed, arguing that prayer is presumptively disruptive because it's like protests or riots.  The federal judge disagreed, ruling that the students had the right to pray.  In the ensuing media buzz, the students appeared on Fox News.  Compounding the first wrong, the College tried to get the court to censor them from disclosing information about their case.  The judge rejected that effort too.  Finally, in a settlement announced last week, the College officially retracted the discipline and paid the students' attorney's fees.

By the time it settled, the case had grown rather expensive, all because the College dug in and tried to fight once it got caught.  Instead of taking any of at least four opportunities to respond intelligently, its bureaucracy persistently devoted itself to an escalating and losing fight.

Matt Krupnick of the Contra Costa Times reports:


The Peralta Community College District has settled a federal lawsuit over its punishment of two College of Alameda students who were praying on campus.

The four-college district will pay $90,000 in legal fees to students Kandy Kyriacou and Ojoma Omaga, who were threatened with suspension after they prayed in class and after Kyriacou prayed with a sick instructor in the teacher's office. The district also agreed to rescind its written warnings to the students, sent in late 2007 and early 2008. (snip)

College of Alameda Vice President Kerry Compton, whose disciplinary letters to the two women sparked the lawsuit, did not respond to a phone message Thursday. Roy Combs, of Oakland, a private attorney who represented the college district, also did not respond to phone and e-mail messages.

In letters sent to the two students in January 2008, Compton wrote that they "may not engage in behavior that is disruptive to the teaching and learning process during class lecture and lab or in the offices of the faculty."

The district's insurance covered all but $25,000 of the cost of the suit, which was filed in October 2008, said Peralta spokesman Jeff Heyman.

Of course, the cost of insurance for the college district will now go up. There is no free lunch in the insurance business.

Although this particular knee-jerk reaction was ridiculous, there is an element of truth in the College's defense.  To a degree, all free speech -- i.e., expression other than that welcomed by official sanction -- is inherently disruptive.  Every spoken word intrudes upon the quiet that existed before.  Liberty can be messy.  But that's what makes America exceptional.  True peace, Dr. King said, is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.
Should the government discipline college students for private, consensual, non-disruptive . . . prayer?  A publicly-funded college has wasted taxpayer dollars fighting for the right to prohibit private prayer. 

Two years ago, a student prayed with a sick teacher at the College of Alameda, near San Francisco, in a private shared office.  Another teacher couldn't tolerate the obscene sight and interrupted the prayer, angrily demanding, "You can't be doing that in here!"  Not content to let the shocked student simply back away from the surprising verbal assault and return to a friend outside, the teacher physically followed her out to repeat his angry demand.

It could have ended there, but it didn't.  The teacher rushed off an email full of misstatements, asking "How can I address this situation without appearing religiously intolerant?"  Without further inquiry, the busy administrator dutifully issued form notices of intent to suspend both of the students for disruptive conduct.  The notices arrived the day before Christmas.  At the hearings which followed, the administrator started by asking each student, "Why don't you tell me why you're here?"

The students were not amused.  First angry intolerance of prayer; then shocking suspension notices; now innocent-until-proven guilty hearings.  To top it off, the administrator dug in and followed up the hearings with written warnings again threatening suspension or expulsion.

This was too much.  The students contacted Pacific Justice Institute, whose attorneys sent several letters advising the College of the students' First Amendment rights.  But the College blithely ignored the letters.  So the students filed suit in federal court.  

The College fought back and tried to get the suit dismissed, arguing that prayer is presumptively disruptive because it's like protests or riots.  The federal judge disagreed, ruling that the students had the right to pray.  In the ensuing media buzz, the students appeared on Fox News.  Compounding the first wrong, the College tried to get the court to censor them from disclosing information about their case.  The judge rejected that effort too.  Finally, in a settlement announced last week, the College officially retracted the discipline and paid the students' attorney's fees.

By the time it settled, the case had grown rather expensive, all because the College dug in and tried to fight once it got caught.  Instead of taking any of at least four opportunities to respond intelligently, its bureaucracy persistently devoted itself to an escalating and losing fight.

Matt Krupnick of the Contra Costa Times reports:


The Peralta Community College District has settled a federal lawsuit over its punishment of two College of Alameda students who were praying on campus.

The four-college district will pay $90,000 in legal fees to students Kandy Kyriacou and Ojoma Omaga, who were threatened with suspension after they prayed in class and after Kyriacou prayed with a sick instructor in the teacher's office. The district also agreed to rescind its written warnings to the students, sent in late 2007 and early 2008. (snip)

College of Alameda Vice President Kerry Compton, whose disciplinary letters to the two women sparked the lawsuit, did not respond to a phone message Thursday. Roy Combs, of Oakland, a private attorney who represented the college district, also did not respond to phone and e-mail messages.

In letters sent to the two students in January 2008, Compton wrote that they "may not engage in behavior that is disruptive to the teaching and learning process during class lecture and lab or in the offices of the faculty."

The district's insurance covered all but $25,000 of the cost of the suit, which was filed in October 2008, said Peralta spokesman Jeff Heyman.

Of course, the cost of insurance for the college district will now go up. There is no free lunch in the insurance business.

Although this particular knee-jerk reaction was ridiculous, there is an element of truth in the College's defense.  To a degree, all free speech -- i.e., expression other than that welcomed by official sanction -- is inherently disruptive.  Every spoken word intrudes upon the quiet that existed before.  Liberty can be messy.  But that's what makes America exceptional.  True peace, Dr. King said, is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.