Originally published in California Publisher, Spring 2017.
by Jason Shepard
Days after Donald Trump was elected president, an Orange Coast College freshman illicitly filmed his human sexuality professor’s anti-Trump comments in the classroom.
Was it free speech or harassment?
That question could apply to the actions of either the professor or the student. The answers highlight the fault lines in today’s campus culture wars.
To conservatives, the incident highlights an oppressive left-wing culture on college campuses from which Republican students need protection.
“I was honestly scared that I would have repercussions with my grades because she knew I was a Trump supporter,” Caleb O’Neil, 19, said at a press conference held by a conservative advocacy group.
O’Neil also said he felt “bullied” by the professor’s comments. “I was scared to go to my car, because after people get riled, they want to wreak havoc,” he told the Orange County Register.
The president of OCC’s faculty union, Rob Schneiderman, suggested the incident shows that students need to learn about academic freedom and free speech.
“Harsh criticism of a politician … is not discrimination,” the Orange County Register quoted Schneiderman as saying. “Surely, this current generation can listen to political statements they disagree with and not claim discrimination.”
Battles over free speech have long raged on college campuses. These days, controversies are erupting at California universities over provocative speakers, limited “free speech zones,” “microaggression” training, “safe spaces,” Title IX investigations and classroom “trigger warnings.”
UC Berkeley has been at the center of violent protests over controversial speakers.
Most recently, two conservative groups, the Young America’s Foundation and the Berkeley College Republicans, sued the university for canceling a student group’s event featuring conservative writer Ann Coulter.
The fears of violence that can come with campus political events aren’t unfounded. In February at Berkeley, protesters lit fires and police cancelled a speech by rightwing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulus. The disturbing images of violent protesters were broadcast live on CNN.
The Los Angeles Times called the incident “a visual illustration of the academy’s decline from a place of learning to a victimology hothouse.”
CSU Los Angeles settled a lawsuit in March over its handling of a planned talk by conservative author Ben Shapiro titled “When Diversity Becomes a Problem.” The university initially cancelled the talk and required the organizers to host a wider panel on viewpoint diversity in its place.
Pierce College and the Los Angeles Community College District are facing a lawsuit over its policies limiting the distribution of leaflets to a 616-square foot “free speech zone” on the 426-acre campus. A student filed the lawsuit after an administrator stopped him from passing out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution.
And in September, the director of the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at CSU Long Beach quit after the university president canceled a planned performance of a play about gender and racial stereotyping provocatively titled, “N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk.” A university official said people questioned whether the play “was achieving the goal of creative constructive dialogue about race relations,” and some feared protests.
At Orange Coast College, the controversy began when professor Olga Perez Stable Cox lamented the presidential election results in her human sexuality class in the days after the November election.
In two short video clips posted on social media, Cox is heard calling Trump’s election an “act of terrorism.” She said pro-Trump voters have “assaulted” the values of many citizens, including the majority of Californians. She also called Vice President-Elect Mike Pence one of the “most anti-gay humans in this country.”
Later, she explained she was trying to calm students who feared what Trump’s election meant for them, and that she empathized with them “as a woman, as a Latina, as a lesbian, as a refugee,” she told the Orange County Register.
“It was just a few moments to acknowledge an experience most of us were having,” she said. “I didn’t say anything wrong or do anything wrong. I didn’t say anything that thousands of Americans weren’t feeling or saying. I don’t regret it.”
The classroom recordings went viral, gaining widespread attention in the national conservative media. A website called “Professor Watchlist” listed Cox as a professor who discriminates against conservative students. Cox received several threatening messages that prompted her and her partner to temporarily leave the state.
Calls to punish or fire Cox spread across the country. The university declined to take any action against the professor for her remarks.
Orange Coast College did suspend student O’Neil for violating college policies and state law prohibiting video recording without consent, but rescinded the suspension after harsh criticism, including editorials from the Orange County Register calling for the ouster of OCC’s board of trustees.
As a result, California state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) has introduced a bill that would protect students from punishment for recording professors who they believe are breaking rules or regulations.
Other proposed legal changes include requests by conservative students at OCC to add political affiliation and ideological beliefs to the university’s anti-discrimination policies.
For Cox’s part, OCC is honoring her as its faculty Colleague of the Year.
The Orange Coast College incident highlights one of many flashpoints in recent debates over free speech and harassment on America’s college campuses.
Aided by digital technology and social media, a comment or incident in a classroom can quickly become fodder in ideological and cultural wars.
For college campuses, the incident underscores the importance of educating people about the role of free speech in today’s society, and also the appropriate line between what’s harassment and discrimination and what’s healthy ideological dissent.
Some universities worried about the deteriorating understanding of free speech principles have begun pushing the adoption of the “Chicago Principles,” a statement of the value of free speech at universities drafted at the University of Chicago.
In March, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer delivered a speech at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., about the challenges to free speech today on college campuses.
“To stifle free expression and open discourse and suppress speech that you don’t like is just an invitation for others to do the same. Accepting this behavior sets universities on a path that is antithetical to fulfilling our highest aspirations,” Zimmer said.
California’s universities should be eternally vigilant in protecting free speech principles from threats from the political left and the right. Orange Coast College got a crash course this year in this important lesson.
Jason M. Shepard, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. His primary research expertise is in media law, and he teaches courses in journalism, and media law, history and ethics. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jasonmshepard.