Conservative student files rights suit against Fresno State

Fresno BeeDecember 16, 2012 

A student who says his conservative politics got him in hot water with Fresno State has filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the university.

Senior Neil O'Brien, who has been a vocal critic of undocumented students, says the university has a double standard when it comes to free-speech rights.

The university took disciplinary action against O'Brien after he made two unannounced visits to faculty advisers to a Latino student newspaper and questioned them on video about the use of the term "white savage" in the publication. One of the professors filed a complaint, calling O'Brien "hostile" and "belligerent."

O'Brien, a 29-year-old recreation major, says in his lawsuit that university officials barred him from participating in student government during the spring semester and from being president of his own campus club, Young Americans for Liberty.

University Vice President Paul Oliaro prohibited O'Brien from going within 100 feet of the Chicano and Latin American Studies faculty and staff and their offices and classrooms, the lawsuit says.

O'Brien contends that President John Welty, his administrators and some professors punished him for speaking his mind, but bend over backwards for left-leaning students and professors.

One Fresno State professor said Friday that O'Brien is tackling an issue that permeates not only Fresno State, but America.

"This isn't about race. This is about fairness," said theater professor Edward EmanuEl, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, but is an adviser to O'Brien's club. "He's posing a question that no one wants to talk about – is everyone treated equally?" EmanuEl said.

O'Brien and his attorney, Brian Leighton, said the answer is no. Leighton, a Clovis attorney, won a major case against the CIA in 2009 and has gained a reputation for challenging federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Because of the pending litigation, Fresno State officials declined to comment. In a written statement, they said the university strongly values the First Amendment rights of students, staff and faculty.

The university also supports the defendants and is prepared to defend them against O'Brien's allegations.

"We encourage individuals to exercise their freedom of speech, provided they do so in an appropriate manner," the statement said.

Since enrolling at Fresno State in 2010, O'Brien has made no secret about his opposition to the DREAM Act and professors in the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department. He is best known for his criticism of former Fresno State student body President Pedro Ramirez, who made national headlines in the 2010-11 school year when he announced he was an undocumented student.

While Ramirez was praised as a poster child for the DREAM Act, O'Brien created a website that raised questions about Ramirez's driving record and participation in student government.

O'Brien said his views made him a target of leftists. He said he was forced to carry a video camera in his backpack for protection against slander.

He said he reached a boiling point in May 2011 when he read a poem that he found offensive in the student-run newspaper, "La Voz De Aztlan." The poem begins: "America, the land robbed by the white savage." He said if the poem had said "brown savages" or "black savages," heads would have rolled, but because it targeted white people, no one got in trouble.

Video camera in hand, O'Brien confronted the newspaper's faculty adviser, Victor Torres, head of Chicano and Latin American Studies, and professor Maria-Aparecida Lopes, to demand answers.

When he peppered them with questions, they told him to leave and closed the door on him. They then called police and accused O'Brien of threatening them, the lawsuit said.

Police questioned O'Brien, and declined to file charges after watching the video, but Fresno State administrators decided to punish him, the lawsuit said.

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