Joan E. Smith: Time to separate truth from hearsay in Modesto Junior College free-speech lawsuit

YCCD Chancellor Dr. Joan Smith in January 4, 2012
YCCD Chancellor Dr. Joan Smith in January 4, 2012 The Modesto Bee

"Sue first, ask questions later.” This appears to be the new entrepreneurial business model demonstrated by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. For the past six months, the Yosemite Community College District has endured a series of inaccurate reporting, false accusations and organizational character attacks at the hands of this approach to resolve issues.

Unfortunately, the way our legal system works, sometimes institutions of higher education are forced to settle, even when they are being misrepresented, to avoid spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Either way, it’s a losing proposition for the college.

There were issues that remained outstanding until late last week. The issues were with respect to correcting multiple erroneous statements on the FIRE website regarding the incident. Now that they have been mostly corrected and FIRE committed to fix the remainder of the inaccuracies, the settlement will proceed.

Recently, FIRE published and distributed another error-filled press release. Let’s start with the facts.

FIRE reported that “MJC prevented Mr. Van Tuinen from handing out the Constitution.”

Modesto Junior College did not prevent Robert Van Tuinen from handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution. There might be some disagreement on this point, but that did not occur. The reports failed to mention that at the same time Van Tuinen was videotaping his discussion with clerical and district staff on MJC’s East Campus, the Associated Students of MJC were handing out U.S. Constitutions on MJC’s West Campus in celebration of Constitution Day. This event was well-advertised and extensively publicized on both campuses.

FIRE reported that the district’s policies were “unconstitutional.”

There was never any finding by the (U.S. District Court in Fresno) that the district’s policies violated constitutional free speech principles. The intent of the district’s previous policy was not malicious in any way. It was primarily written to maintain order and avoid conflict where opposing groups gathered. It was designed to promote campus safety while still protecting free speech.

FIRE reported that Van Tuinen states he now “will be able to engage in free discussion on campus.”

He was able to engage in free discussion before, during and after this incident. He was not stopped from handing out U.S. Constitutions or from videotaping on campus. FIRE further misrepresented a clerical staff member by claiming the individual was an administrator.

The facts are elusive to the media covering this story. Last week, the only news organization that bothered to contact the district for information was The Modesto Bee.

In addition to not raising any issues related to policy beforehand, a videotape was edited and posted on the Internet and on FIRE’s website that highlighted the blindsiding of a clerical employee at her desk. Unfortunately, as a result, several employees received and continue to receive death threats and threats of physical violence.

Our employee safety is paramount and the misrepresentation of clerical and district staff has affected several employees’ quality of life and professional and emotional well-being.

The bottom line is that district policy was updated to read more clearly and eliminate the advance check-in requirement, among other changes, and these could have been easily addressed through our normal policy review process, which is ongoing.

Although this case has been represented as having nothing to do with money, it has been clear from the beginning that the financial component has driven this lawsuit at least in part, as evidenced by the $50,000 settlement, most of which is going to attorneys.

The reason I am writing this is to speak to the MJC community. MJC cherishes free speech and always will. The misrepresentations that have been occurring over the past six months need to be corrected.

Hopefully, now MJC can go back to the business of education. FIRE claims that they are about free speech. Now that the lawsuit has officially been settled, I have an opportunity to express my views, my free speech, which includes the facts noted above.