August 17, 2006

Dismissed lawsuit in San Jose State's education program

FIRE blogger Samatha Harris complains today about the summary dismissal of a federal lawsuit, Head v. Board of Trustees of California State University. Stephen Head alleged that his free-speech rights (among others) were violated in the education program of San Jose State University because one of his professors disagreed with his opinions and reportedly said he was "unfit to teach" because of them. Judge William Alsup dismissed the federal complaint for "failure to state a claim"—i.e., that even when one assumed that all of the plaintiff's factual statements were accurate, there was no legitimate cause in the complaint.

Head still has a lawsuit pending in state court, but the fundamental issue here (and probably in state court as well) is really that he's representing himself. Neither he nor I are experts in writing briefs or making legal arguments, and there are dozens of ways in which layfolk can mess up procedurally. And that happened here. While he was making claims of political discrimination, he was not contesting his grade in a course in federal court. That leaves it very difficult for anyone to see the concrete harm, if the essential complaint is that one professor and a department chair criticized him.

To see the logic of the judge's opinion here is not to judge the situation. Head's factual claims don't make the faculty members in question look sophisticated. That's just one side, of course, and I wouldn't expect a student who failed a course with a beef to represent the professor in the best light possible. But in any case, those statements would be grounds for criticizing the professor, not a lawsuit.

Harris is wrong to criticize the lawsuit's dismissal. If Alsup had allowed the case to proceed and eventually ruled for the plaintiff on these grounds, it would essentially give students veto power over faculty criticism. If there truly is a miscarriage of justice because of the grading practice, then let the point be on that, not what was said or not said in class as a basis for a lawsuit. If Head was foolish enough to file a lawsuit representing himself, a summary dismissal was one very likely result.

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Posted in Academic freedom on August 17, 2006 11:33 AM |