June Sheldon was an adjunct faculty member in the biology department at San Jose City College in the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District. While teaching a Human Heredity course during the summer 2007 semester, Ms. Sheldon answered a student’s question about heredity and homosexual behavior. She noted the “nature versus nurture” debate on this issue and pointed the student to information contained in the course textbook and to the research of a well-known German scientist. Another student, offended by Ms. Sheldon’s answer, filed a complaint with the Dean of the Division of Math and Science at San Jose City College. The dean initiated an “investigation” that ended in Ms. Sheldon being removed from the seniority rehire preference list. The dean also recommended that Ms. Sheldon be terminated by the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District Board of Trustees. On February 12, 2008, the Board of Trustees terminated Ms. Sheldon based on what she said in the Human Heredity class, violating Ms. Sheldon’s First Amendment rights to free speech and academic freedom and denying her due process and equal protection of the law as guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment.
On July 16, 2008, the ADF Center for Academic Freedom filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division, on behalf of Ms. Sheldon against officials of the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District. The College moved to dismiss the case and the Court denied the College’s motion on November 25, 2009. The Court rejected the College’s motion because it found that a “teacher’s instructional speech is protected by the First Amendment.”
The Supreme Court has yet to determine the full extent of professors’ free speech rights in the classroom. This case is the first to examine directly the question in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and it rendered a promising ruling in favor of protecting a professor’s right to free speech in the classroom.
Know someone who would like to know more about their religious rights on campus?