SAN JOSE, California, Thursday, July 22, 2010 ( — The San Jose/Evergreen Community College District has agreed to a settlement in a lawsuit filed on behalf of a biology professor who was fired for her answer to a student’s question about homosexuality.

Alliance Defense Fund attorneys representing Professor June Sheldon agreed to dismiss the suit after the district agreed to remove Sheldon’s termination from her record and pay her $100,000 for lost work. The district had initially argued that its professors have no free speech rights in the classroom, but a federal court rejected that argument and determined that “a teacher’s instructional speech is protected by the First Amendment.” Sheldon is now teaching at a different college.

“Professors shouldn’t be fired simply for doing their jobs as educators. Professionally addressing both sides of an academic issue according to the class curriculum is not grounds for dismissal; it’s what a professor is supposed to do,” said ADF Litigation Staff Counsel David J. Hacker.

“This is a favorable settlement for Ms. Sheldon, but we remain concerned, for the sake of all faculty members, about the district’s view of academic freedom, as expressed in court, in contradiction to its policy.”

Sheldon, an experienced adjunct professor who taught a human heredity course at San Jose City College, answered a student’s inquiry in June 2007 about how heredity affects homosexual behavior. According to the Sheldon’s account, she briefly introduced positions on both sides of the issue that was to be explored in a later class, and explained that the issue is complex and is still being debated by the scientific community. As part of her response she recited research of a well-known German scientist who had found a possible relationship between prenatal stress and male homosexuality, and concluded by noting that “homosexual behavior may be influenced by both genes and the environment.”

The school launched an investigation after a student in the class lodged an informal complaint that deemed Sheldon’s comments “offensive and unscientific,” and claimed that Sheldon had said that there “aren’t any real lesbians.” Sheldon was recommended for removal from the adjunct seniority rehire preference list and terminated by the district’s board of trustees in February 2008.

The district’s “Academic Freedom” policy states: “The common good depends on the free search for truth and its free expression; to this end, faculty and students hold the right of full freedom of inquiry and expression.”

At the same time, the district argued in a brief that Sheldon “is an employee and does not have a First Amendment cause of action for the Defendants’ regulation of her in-class speech” and that the district “must be able to control the in class conduct and speech of those teachers.”

“So while the District promised freedom, it still wanted the right to censor and punish faculty for speech it disliked,” said Hacker. “This is a dangerous position that all faculty should be concerned about, lest they fall into the same trap as Professor Sheldon.”

ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit Sheldon v. Dhillon in June 2008 with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division.

The Alliance Defense Fund is also fighting on behalf of an Illinois professor who was fired on similar grounds by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Dr. Kenneth Howell was punished after a student complained about Howell’s email to students in a Catholicism course that explained the Catholic position on homosexuality, which the student called “hate speech.” (See Dr. Howell’s email here)