A court may have to decide whether it was an imprudent act that violated a tenured professor’s constitutional rights to free speech or a justifiable reaction to a disgruntled and unruly employee.
Earl Wilson, the president of the board of directors of Antelope Valley College, had guards eject John Hall, who has taught at the school for more than 20 years, from a meeting when Hall criticized the school’s new president and asked that she resign, calling her “draconian and Machiavellian.”
Wilson has said publicly that Hall was out of order. Hall insists that he was just exercising his right to free speech during the public participation period of the meeting and the school attempted to silence him, in the process violating his 1st Amendment rights.
Hall has filed a claim with the college administration and is seeking damages for loss of reputation, humiliation and emotional distress, the required first step, he says, to filing a lawsuit.
The case has split the faculty of the 10,000-student campus in Lancaster into two warring parties and may be further dividing them at a time of transition under the new president, Linda Spink, according to several faculty members.
The incident on June 9 began in a tense atmosphere. A group of teachers had made a presentation to the board of directors in a closed session, claiming that Spink, who was named president last August, was violating school policy by trying to hire an English teacher herself. Since 1990, hiring has been done by faculty committees.
After concluding the closed session, the board opened the meeting to the public with about 75 people in attendance. Hall was the second of a group of about five speakers, mostly faculty members, who were critical of Spink, according to several of those who attended.
He began by saying how proud he was of the school and how unhappy he was when he read quotes from Spink criticizing the school, according to witnesses and a copy of Hall’s speech.
He then launched into a sharp denunciation of Spink and her 10 months at the school. He claimed she “failed to comprehend the mission of the school,” inspired dissension among the faculty and castigated employees.
Somewhere in the middle of the speech, Wilson began banging his gavel.
Hall asked: “You going to shut me up?”
Wilson replied: “Yeah, you’ve gone too far.”
And with that Wilson made a gesture for campus security to escort Hall away. As the guards led Hall toward the exit, he continued to read his speech. Almost out of the door and with his voice barely audible, Hall called for Spink’s resignation.
“This is a college, where tolerance is a major guiding point,” said Hall, 56, in an interview Thursday. “Even offensive views are to be heard. The message the board sent to the students in attendance was, ‘We will not only gavel you down when you dissent with us, we will have you arrested.’ They can’t do that.”
Nancy Hoverman, who has worked in the school’s health department for 21 years, said that she has been attending board meetings for seven years and had never seen someone thrown out before.
“I was surprised when they threw John out,” Hoverman said. “He didn’t use profanity, or attack her character. He was talking about her leadership and management style. I was shocked. People have the right to criticize in open forum.”
Hoverman questioned why the other speakers who denounced Spink were not ejected too.
Charles Hood, who also teaches in the English department, addressed the five-member board just prior to Hall. In his speech, Hood said the school didn’t need a “leadership style based on the swagger stick and the jackboot.”
Neither Wilson nor any other board members returned phone calls from The Times.
Spink, however, said Thursday that she believed Wilson was within his rights to expel Hall, who she said violated the school’s procedural rules for board meetings.
According to Spink, Hall did not stop speaking when the director, Wilson, began pounding his gavel. She said that she believes Wilson tried to stop Hall because he wanted to ask if Hall’s remarks belonged in a closed session. She also said Hall was attacking her character.
The community college board’s rules state: “Remarks made by any person addressing the Board which adversely reflects upon racial, religious, political views or character of any person [are] out of order.”
But according to two experts who specialize in constitutional law, the public enjoys wide latitude in criticizing public officials.
If a member of the public has the floor and is not over his time limit, then officials are not supposed to cut the person off, said Michael Shapiro, a USC law professor who teaches 1st Amendment law.
Rex Heinke, who specializes in 1st Amendment law for a West Los Angeles law firm, said that while government bodies don’t have to tolerate personal abuse, they cannot expel someone for being very critical. “People have the right to be quite critical of government officials regardless how offensive officials might find it,” he said.
Hall says he would be willing to forget the lawsuit if Wilson and the board apologized and made a public statement declaring the rights of the public to speak at board meetings.
“I didn’t do this to get rich or make a name for myself,” Hall said. “I did this because I had to protect my rights and the rights of others. If they will do to this me, a 22-year employee, they could do this to anyone.”