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Twilight for academic freedom?

UCLA suspends professor for denying student’s request for special treatment


UCLA campus Associated Press/Photo by Damian Dovarganes (file)

Twilight for academic freedom?

Under what circumstances should a professor extend special grace to a student? One veteran professor found himself on the defense after giving what the school deemed the wrong answer to that question.

Gordon Klein has taught at UCLA’s management school since 1981. But he’s been on mandatory leave since June 3 after declining to grant special accommodation to minority students following the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests. In an email thanking Klein for offering “anti-racist resources,” the student said that the Floyd’s death caused trauma and fear. He asked Klein to alter the exam by postponing it, shortening it, or making it “no harm,” according to a letter the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent to UCLA.

On June 2, Klein responded to the student, saying Floyd’s death was a tragedy but questioning the wisdom of making special exceptions for black students given university rules regarding exams. Klein suggested the request might contradict Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief that people should not be evaluated based on the color of their skin.

Almost immediately, a Change.org petition appeared asking the university to fire him. The school suspended Klein a day later and reassigned his classes. In a June 4 email to the management school community, Antonio Bernardo, the dean of the department, called Klein’s conduct “a disregard for our core principles, including an abuse of power.”

In nearly 40 years of teaching, Klein never faced discipline or such criticism, FIRE attorney Katlyn Patton said. But since the email became public, he has received multiple threats to the extent that police increased their presence near his home, the Washington Free Beacon reported.

“Penalizing protected expression is not a cure for addressing the underlying challenges faced by society,” Patton said, adding that free speech benefits people across the political, social, and ideological spectrums. She said Klein’s exchange with the student, though “brusque,” followed UCLA policies and the First Amendment.

FIRE’s Peter Bonilla said Klein’s suspension follows twin trajectories he has observed in recent years. First, schools are more sensitive to insensitive language even in appropriate academic contexts. And second, university officials increasingly scrutinize faculty members’ personal social media accounts. Professors can face hate mail, threats, and even discipline.

Shawnee State University professor Nicholas Meriwether appealed after a federal court in February upheld the university’s decision to formally reprimand him for not calling a transgender student by the requested pronoun. Academic scholars, conservatives, and self-described “radical feminists” have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Meriwether. Indiana University publicly condemned tenured professor Eric Rasmusen, a Christian and conservative, for allegedly racist and anti-gay social media posts, though it has not fired him. And after a long battle, a California state court sided last year with sociology professor Eric Thompson when Moreno Valley College accused him of misconduct for introducing alternative views of same-sex attraction.

“Underlying these extreme responses is a framing of the issue in terms of psychological trauma or even violence—charged verbiage which elicits an equally charged response,” Bonilla said.

UCLA has not yet responded substantively to FIRE’s letter.

Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas

Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas Associated Press/Photo by LM Otero (file)

The COVID-19 “carte blanche”

A recent Supreme Court decision against a church has dashed hopes that judges will overrule coronavirus-related worship restrictions anytime soon.

A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected a challenge to an Illinois ban on church gatherings of more than 10 persons. Though Gov. J.B. Pritzker has since withdrawn the restriction, the court agreed with Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church and Logos Baptist Ministries that the case was not moot because he could reimpose it.

But the court dismissed claims of religious discrimination, citing Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ May 29 opinion in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom. Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook found church gatherings differ from grocery shopping, warehouse operations, or even soup kitchens: “Feeding the body requires teams of people to work together in physical spaces, but churches can feed the spirit in other ways.”

A similar challenge to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-at-home order suffered the same fate. Elkhorn Baptist Church focused its lawsuit on whether the governor had the authority to issue the executive order, but the Oregon Supreme Court’s unsigned opinion undercut any religious liberty claim, also citing the South Bay ruling.

The churches in both cases vowed to fight on. The Chicago congregation will ask the full panel of 7th Circuit judges to hear their cases. And Pacific Justice Institute attorney Ray Hacke, who represented Elkhorn Baptist, said he plans to file a separate lawsuit in federal court arguing Brown wrongly treated church gatherings differently than the George Floyd protests in Portland.

But Hacke said Roberts’ decision in South Bay presents a hurdle: “It’s all but given states carte blanche to infringe on constitutionally protected rights as long as it’s done in the name of public safety.” —S.W.

Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas

Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas Associated Press/Photo by LM Otero (file)

Policing Big Tech

The U.S. Department of Justice has waded into the debate over online censorship. Shortly after President Donald Trump’s executive order last week challenging online platforms’ immunity from liability for user content, the department on Wednesday released a series of reform proposals.

The 28-page report carves out exceptions to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. It says the government can hold “Bad Samaritans”—platforms that purposely facilitate or solicit illegal content—liable for what users post. Section 230 won’t protect content promoting child abuse, terrorism, or cyberstalking.

The Justice Department also suggested new language that would only protect censorship that complies with a platform’s terms of service and has a reasonable explanation.

Republicans and online safety advocates largely support the DOJ proposals, while tech companies say such rollbacks to Section 230 would spell the end of the internet as we know it. “Changing significantly or eliminating the balance of responsibility and provisions about liability in Section 230 would, in our view, in the end, mean less speech of all kinds appearing online,” Facebook Vice President Nick Clegg told reporters on Wednesday.

Simultaneously with the Justice Department’s recommendations, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced a bill that only applies to larger social media platforms but would curb immunity more significantly. —S.W.

Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas

Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas Associated Press/Photo by LM Otero (file)

Shoring up students’ rights

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Friday signed a law meant to buttress religious liberty for students in public schools.

The Student Religious Liberties Act requires schools to allow students to meet for religious reasons and to accommodate religious and nonreligious groups equally. Schools cannot penalize students for religious or non-religious content in their work.

A similar federal law, the 1984 Equal Access Act, enjoyed broad support from both political parties, the Christian Legal Society, and the American Civil Liberties Union. But not this time. Ohio Democrats opposed the bill, as did the Ohio ACLU. In testimony before an Ohio House committee, ACLU lobbyist Gary Daniels urged legislators to reject the bill as unnecessary, confusing, and potentially divisive. —S.W.


Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.

@slntplanet

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CaptTee

I would have given the student an assignment to document his ancestors back to the 1850 Census (the first Census that named everybody and not just the head of household) to prove that at least 3/5ths of his ancestors were slaves.

He would find that most of his ancestors in the last 170 years were not slaves.

RCRE8109

The title should have been, “Twilight for academic standards”.   

This poor professor is the victim of a set up. If this student has not been able to study for this class due to “fear” they were infected by, then that has obviously effected all his or her other classes. Did those professors get a request to give this student a freeride? Then how did the person who took over Mr. Kline’s class handle this students request for a free ride?  Any other students ask for and get a freeride, in any other class?  

How is it, that as soon as Mr. Kline responded that he was not going to drop academic standards, he got nailed by “change.org”, immediately?   

Why would the student ask for the grade to, “do no harm”, if the final test is the only thing that the grade is established upon?  As the professor, I would have said, if I wave the final exam for everybody, and since there is nothing else to grade on, everybody gets treated equally, with a failing zero!  The missing final exam did no harm, because everybody had a zero at that point anyway.  Is this student so dimwitted that he or she did not realize there was nothing else to establish a grade on? 

Since the administration has hammered the professor, and essentially backed this student, they have established a new standard which allows the elimination of any and all academic requirements because any student can now claim a “feeling” as an excuse for not studying and doing the work.            

VICKIE L

OK - I need to weigh in on the debate about curtailing of rights to gather for worship. 

Going to a worship service without appropriate physical distancing, mask-wearing, and sanitation procedures is participating in a potential COVID “super-spreader event”. I’m sorry, but it is true. In order for a worship service to be “safe” – or at least low risk – EVERYONE would have to be wearing masks - yes, even during the singing – in fact especially during singing! Appropriate distancing in a situation where a number of people are talking at the same time (“Can you say ‘amen!’”) or speaking responses together is not 6 feet. It is more like 8 – 10 feet. ANY indoor gathering of people close together that includes speaking, yelling, or singing together is risky business. Take that gathering outdoors with the same singing and speaking, and you still need masks and at least 6 feet of distance.

I am a committed Christian. I love attending worship. I especially love singing. I have not attended worship services since March 18. Actually, for a few weeks my church offered short, low-attendance, reservation-only, communion services without singing. I attended every one they offered. Since my state has (foolishly) opened up, they no longer do so. They are back to “normal”. I am a physician and am in contact with patients with vulnerabilities to COVID. I can’t, in good conscience, attend worship and then go to work. But, honestly, no matter who you are, it is likely that you potentially come into contact with friends and family members who have those same vulnerabilities.

I know that there have been unfortunate and wrong-headed limitations placed on some churches attempts to worship. For example, there is nothing risky about “drive-in worship”, with parishioners worshipping from their cars! Someone wasn’t thinking very hard when they tried to close that down! But we need to get past the habit of crying “foul” or “persecution” when common-sense limitations are placed. It’s time to stop talking about limiting church services and talk more appropriately about the need to limit gatherings with specific characteristics (see above). And if your church can, and will, work to genuinely mitigate risks, it might no longer fall into the risky category. Mine hasn’t chosen to do the right thing. I’m still watching the live stream, and will be for a very long time, I’m afraid.

Church should be life-giving – not potentially fatal. We can do that.  

jclark53

I'm not going along with in and neither are my friends but we have no say. Our government, local and state, is solidly liberal. Any conservative views are considered hate crime. The situation in this article could eaily have happened in my state many times over.