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Academics and Muslims Await Results of Probe

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Results of an independent probe into allegations that an Orange Coast College instructor vilified his Muslim students are expected to be released this week, with findings certain to draw intense scrutiny nationwide from Islamic groups and watchdogs for academic freedom.

The Orange County Department of Education has been conducting the investigation.

The instructor’s supporters accuse investigators of dragging their heels for nine weeks, saying Ken Hearlson has already been denied his teaching privileges for more than two months without due process.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a national academic freedom watchdog group, has started a “targeted campaign” aimed at Orange Coast College alumni and donors to get Hearlson reinstated.

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They agree that Hearlson made provocative statements in his U.S. government class Sept. 18, one week after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Those include accusing Muslim students on campus of fomenting hatred, and saying Muslims in general were hypocritical in denouncing the Sept. 11 attacks but not terrorism against Israel.

“You can’t punish a professor because his lectures and words are too provocative,” said Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the watchdog group. “If so, you need to reevaluate what college is about.”

Four Muslim students from the two-year Costa Mesa college and at least one national Islamic organization say Hearlson’s discussion on terrorism and Islam crossed the line of scholarship into personal attack and discriminatory speech. They want to see him disciplined, if not fired, saying he accused the students of being “terrorists,” “Nazis” and “murderers.”

“We view this as an important case,” said Ra’id Faraj, a spokesman for the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “We definitely don’t want a situation where someone feels uncomfortable in a learning institution because their religion is mocked.”

C.C. Abdelmuti, a 20-year-old Muslim in the class, said Hearlson directed all his comments to the four Muslims who sat near the back of the auditorium.

“He was talking to us, not to the class,” she said. “Maybe he was saying [Muslims in general], but he was talking to us. I was in shock.”

Investigators in the case have been provided with audiotapes of the Sept. 18 class, made by students supportive of Hearlson, a 57-year-old former Marine.

Hearlson said the tapes were given to him by those students and bolster his insistence that he never personally attacked the Muslim students. A transcript provided by his supporters shows Hearlson making emotional accusations against Muslims but not calling the four students the terms alleged.

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“The tapes exonerate me,” Hearlson said. He said the cassettes do show that the debate got heated and that his voice “went up and down and got loud.” But his only regret is that, as a born-again Christian, “maybe I didn’t show enough love to them. I should have shown a little more compassion.”

Abdelmuti said she has not had a chance to review the tapes but stands by her statements.

During the investigation, by an attorney from the county’s Department of Education, evidence was gathered from interviews, letters and petitions from some of the 200 students in the class, testimony from former Hearlson students, the audiotapes and a five-hour interview with Hearlson.

Charges made in 1998 by a former student of Hearlson’s also resurfaced during the inquiry. Terry Eselun, a lesbian, said Hearlson expressed the same kind of “venom and hatred” three years ago, telling students that, among other things, homosexuals caused the fall of the Roman Empire, then provoked her into a heated classroom exchange. Hearlson said he didn’t single out homosexuals, but said immorality, including gay lifestyles, led to the Roman society’s downfall.

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“I understand there’s rules around academic freedom, but he stepped beyond the bounds of that,” said Eselun, 51, who owns a Huntington Beach real estate company and is completing her college education now at Cal State Long Beach. “His anger and his outrage don’t make students feel safe.”

Eselun brought a complaint to the college’s administrators, who ruled that Hearlson “may have used poor judgment” but that his comments were allowed under the banner of academic freedom.

“My point was that I didn’t want him to do this again” to gay students, she said. “There may be some younger kid who wouldn’t be able to stand up to him, and he could push them over the edge.”

Length of Investigation Attacked and Defended

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Since the tapes have been in the investigators’ possession for nearly a month, Thor Halvorssen, executive director of the academic freedom group, said there’s no reason Hearlson shouldn’t be back in the classroom. That’s especially true, Halvorssen argued, because Hearlson was relieved of his teaching duties without due process.

“Orange Coast College can’t figure out a way to get out of this case without making themselves a national joke,” Halvorssen said, adding that campus administrators are trying to find a way to both “appease” the Muslim students and defend academic freedom.

Jim Carnett, spokesman for the college, said the investigation is being done as quickly as possible.

“It was a very, very complex situation,” Carnett said. “And there was a lot to go through.”

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Hearlson said he’s received free legal help from Halvorssen’s group.

Mooath Saidi, one of Hearlson’s Muslim students, said the lengthy investigation didn’t concern him, as long as the facts get out.

“We’re just being patient,” he said.

Hearlson said he suspects administrators are “caught in a real bind.”

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