College Officials Needed Swift Lesson in Classroom Freedom

California college tried to suspend student who recorded his sexuality professor's anti-Trump rant.


There's something creepily totalitarian about Orange Coast College's handling of the now nationally known incident involving 19-year-old Caleb O'Neil, who was suspended from the college for two semesters for secretly videotaping one of his instructors engaging in an anti-Trump rant. The suspension was bad enough, but the college also insisted that O'Neil apologize to the professor and hand in an apologetic essay about his transgressions. Fortunately, after a groundswell of public support for the student—and academic freedom generally—the college backed down and rescinded the suspension and other sanctions.

For those who have missed the Register articles, human sexuality instructor Olga Perez Stable Cox was caught on video telling her class that Donald Trump's presidential victory was "an act of terrorism." The most frightening thing, she said, "is that the people who are leading the assault are among us." O'Neil eventually posted the video after being unsatisfied with the college's response. It went viral. As someone who campaigned for Trump, O'Neil had reason to fear the instructor's views could have repercussions on his grades. After all, he's one of those "among us."

O'Neil's supporters, including some local Republican leaders, blasted the professor for using her teaching position to shame students. The union representing faculty there criticized O'Neil for not engaging in an "open dialogue." The school administration said it would investigate the complaint filed against the teacher, but the only obvious repercussions so far are the harshly punitive sanctions it tried to impose against the student.

The college's letter to O'Neil, published on a website, understandably drew a backlash. It said that O'Neil's essay should, among other things, discuss his "thoughts and analyses on the impact of the video going 'viral' and the ensuing damage to Orange Coast College students, faculty and staff." So he was going to be required to write an essay—and the school was telling him the basic view he had to express in it.

Cox says she has received angry emails and messages and now feels "paranoid" and like she's been "attacked by a mob of people all across the country." Any threats and intimidation are wrong, of course. But this whole situation could have been avoided had the college administration acted in an even-handed manner in the beginning. We don't want a world where college professors are afraid to speak forthrightly to their classes, but students are at least owed an apology when subjected to an inappropriate rant.

O'Neil was being disciplined for violating the school's prohibition on unauthorized recording, which is a picayune point, given that this is a taxpayer-funded school. The First Amendment should still apply there. The punishment was outsized compared to the transgression. And even such a punishment would have been more tolerable if one could have any confidence the college treated with any seriousness Cox's in-classroom transgression.

This scene has sparked anger because it confirms the worst fears conservatives have about liberal intolerance in academia. In a sane world, a few apologies would suffice. "Hey, I was distraught about the election and was unfair in my comments." "OK, I was upset by your remarks and believed that a video was my only recourse." The administration would step in and everyone would sing "Kumbaya." Instead, lawyers got involved, and there was even a threatened recall of college board members. It's the result of a college that decided to dig in its heels rather than pursue fairness. The punitive response suggests the problem at Orange Coast goes a lot deeper than one professor's lack of a filter.

Ironically, Coast Colleges, the community college district that includes Orange Coast, has an entire Office of Equity, Inclusion and Compliance. One document posted on its website details the evils of "microaggressions"—"common, subtle messages that communicate racial indignations." Such indignations typically are "unconscious in nature," but they "have an integral influence on students' perceptions of campus climates as hostile, alienating and isolating."

The controversy isn't racial, although Cox reportedly referred to white supremacy and evoked the Civil War. But if a college system is so worried about unconscious, little aggressions that create a hostile and alienating classroom environment, shouldn't it also be worried about instructors who make loud, conscious and aggressive statements that are alienating to students with a minority political viewpoint? The hypocrisy here is almost too rich for words.

I admire O'Neil's willingness to fight back. It seems likely he's not the only student to endure such things, so this is a worthy fight. But perhaps he should find a school that values his temerity. Americans—and academics, in particular—need a healthy reminder of why free expression is the foundation of a free society. And why petty, unjust bureaucrats remain its enemy.