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College harassment code struck down

July 14, 2009 |  4:08 pm

Ruling that its sexual harassment code violates students’ free speech rights, a federal judge has barred the Los Angeles Community College District from enforcing it.

U.S. District Judge George King issued a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit filed by a Christian student named Jonathan Lopez, who accused his professor at L.A. City College of censoring his classroom speech about his religious beliefs, including his opposition to gay marriage.

Lopez claimed the professor called him a "fascist bastard," cut his presentation short and refused to grade it. The student also challenged the district's sexual harassment code as overly broad.

King ruled that by using "subjective" terms such as "hostile" and "offensive," the district's policy encroached on constitutional free speech protections.

"We...recognize that Defendants have, laudably, attempted to prevent sexual harassment on the District’s campuses," King’s order read. "Nevertheless, because the Policy regulates expression as well as conduct, we must ensure that it complies with the First Amendment."

King discounted arguments that the policy challenge should be thrown out because Lopez got an A in the class and his professor, John Matteson, was disciplined. In an eleventh-hour argument, the district also asserted that the sexual harassment code had been repealed in 2007.

King said the policy remained on district and L.A. City College websites, and thus could continue to discourage free expression. He also chided the district for not mentioning the repeal at an earlier hearing.

"We are chagrined that defense counsel and Defendants’ representative who were present at the oral argument on June 10, 2009 were apparently ignorant of the status of a policy they purported to defend," King’s order said. "This lack of preparedness is viewed with great disfavor."

The injunction will remain in place as the rest of Lopez’s lawsuit proceeds. He is seeking financial damages. Camille Goulet, the general counsel, said the district had not decided whether to appeal but would "be diligent and conscientious in following any final court order."

-- Gale Holland