Published December 11, 2012
A student at Fresno State University is suing his professors for allegedly putting him on disciplinary probation because of his politics, and he has video that he says proves his case.
The trouble started in May 2011, when Neil O’Brien, a senior at Fresno State who is active in student government, went to talk with two professors in Fresno’s Chicano and Latin American Studies Department. O'Brien, who is widely known on campus for advocating against policies such as the DREAM Act, the proposed law that would give young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, was miffed that they allowed a poem he found offensive to be published in a university-sponsored newspaper. The poem starts with the passage “America, the land robbed by the white savage” and continues along those lines.
When O'Brien approached the professors separately in their offices, the same thing happened in each case: they said they didn’t want to talk with him. Openly recording the encounters on a video camera, O'Brien told them he just wanted to ask questions. They again told him to leave, and closed their doors.
What happened next is what got O'Brien in trouble: The professors called the police. According to police reports, the professors said that O'Brien had been “threatening” and “harassing” them. Police took O'Brien in for questioning, but decided not to file charges after watching video he took of the incident (which O'Brien has posted online here.)
O'Brien, who filed suit in California Superior Court last month, says that the video proves he didn’t do anything wrong and that he was just asking questions. He said he taped the encounter – and typically tapes his political interactions on campus – precisely to avoid these types of claims. California has a two-party consent law for recording communication -- meaning both parties must agree. But because O'Brien wasn't hiding the camera and the professors did not object, his recording of the incident was apparently legal.
“I wanted an accurate record of what was said and what happened,” he told FoxNews.com.
“You can see that even though the video completely exonerates me, I still went through all this hell.”
O'Brien's troubles continued when he was called into the Dean’s office and told he would face a disciplinary hearing in which he would not be allowed to have a lawyer present.
In the disciplinary hearing, O'Brien says he repeatedly asked his questioners to watch the video of the incident – but they refused, even though he brought a DVD with the footage to the hearing.
University Vice President Paul Oliaro ultimately gave O'Brien disciplinary probation for a semester – which forbade him from serving as the president of a student group he formed (a chapter of Young Americans For Liberty) and banned him from going “within 100 feet of the Chicano Latin American studies faculty or staff or their offices or classrooms in which they are teaching.”
O'Brien said he thought the punishment was ultimately because of his political advocacy.
“I can’t think of a reason besides that they just don’t like conservatives, and just don’t like to answer questions on anything.”
O'Brien points to University President John Welty's outspoken support for the DREAM Act.
“It's time to pass the DREAM Act,” Welty said in a message to students, in which he went on to urge students to call their members of Congress about the issue.
O'Brien's lawyer, Brian Leighton, says he thinks O'Brien is being discriminated against.
“What these professors can’t stand is that Neil shows up to all these university meetings… and he says what he thinks,” Leighton said.
But Fresno State spokeswoman Kathleen Rhodes Schock said that politics did not play a role in O'Brien's punishment.
"Fresno State strongly values and supports the First Amendment rights of all students, faculty, staff and administrators. We encourage individuals to exercise their freedom of speech, provided they do so in an appropriate manner," she told FoxNews.com.
O'Brien denies that he acted in an inappropriate manner.
“I just ask questions. I disagree with the political positions of the university; I’m allowed to disagree. I still have the First Amendment.”
Schock said she could not provide further details because they involved disciplinary action against a student, but said that the university stood by the professors.
"Fresno State has an established student discipline process that ensures fairness to all parties involved. We believe strongly that the individuals named as defendants in the lawsuit did not violate Mr. O’Brien’s rights and we support them in their defense against Mr. O’Brien’s allegations."
The professors who were sued by O'Brien either did not respond to questions or referred questions to the university public relations office.
Advocates for free speech on campus say that "harassment" is the catch-all that university administrators use to punish students they disagree with.
"Abuses of harassment rationales are extremely common on college campuses," Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, told FoxNews.com.
"I don't know the specifics of this case, but it's very easy to get in trouble for the 'wrong' opinion on campus today," Lukianoff said.
Lukianoff, a self-described liberal, also noted that social conservatives are the most likely to be persecuted for their political views on campus.
"If you're going to get in trouble for expression of a political opinion, chances are it's a socially conservative one," he said.
O'Brien's attorney expects that the case could take “a while,” and potentially more than a year, to work its way through the courts.
O'Brien says he filed the suit because he felt he had to take a stand.
“This school is totally Orwellian," he said. "I just want to share my opinion when I disagree, and I shouldn’t be treated like a criminal for it."
The writer of this piece can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.