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Dustin Lance Black has a few choice words on Pasadena college payout

Pasadena City College paid Oscar-winning screenwriter Black $26,000 after it rescinded an invitation to speak at commencement for reasons that struck many as ill considered at best, homophobic at worst. Here, Black leads the 2012 Salt Lake City gay pride parade.
(Scott Sommerdorf / AP)

Oscar-winning screenwriter and LGBT rights activist Dustin Lance Black was on the phone. It was apparent from his tone that he was not very happy to be talking again about the series of unfortunate and avoidable events last spring that left authorities at his alma mater, Pasadena City College, reeling from charges of homophobia and incompetence after they invited, disinvited, then reinvited him as commencement speaker.

“This is a painful event that just won’t go away,” Black, 40, said from Memphis. He had just landed there from Chicago after appearing with two other LGBT activists--the NBA’s Jason Collins and the actress LaVerne Cox--at a fundraiser for a group that provides housing for people with HIV and AIDS.

On Tuesday, my colleague Jason Song reported that Black received a payment of $26,050 from Pasadena City College in exchange for promising not to pursue future legal claims. Former PCC President Mark Rocha, whose own severance agreement has prompted a lawsuit from an open government group, negotiated the payment. The parties had agreed not to discuss the arrangement; Song obtained the documents through a Public Records Act request. PCC refused to comment on the payout, and Song was unable to reach Black.

Black called me, he said, because I had written quite a bit about PCC’s commencement speaker debacle last spring. He was concerned that news of the payment made it sound as if he had demanded the school compensate him for botching his speaking invitation. “It was strictly reimbursement,” he said. “They would not communicate with me, they would only communicate with the lawyers. That’s expensive.”

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In March, you may recall, Black was invited to be the school’s commencement speaker. In April, PCC administrators rescinded the invitation after publicly fretting that Black, who won an original screenplay Oscar for the 2008 biopic “Milk,” would bring disrepute to the school for an incident that had occurred five years earlier.

In 2009, someone stole, and sold, intimate photos of Black with a former boyfriend. Black, who believed the images had been destroyed, won a $100,000 judgment in the case. Even when PCC officials became aware that Black was the victim, they defended the disinvitation, citing concern that the school was already suffering bad publicity from two recent sex scandals.

“It just didn’t seem like the right time for Mr. Black to be the speaker…We just don’t want to give PCC a bad name,” Board of Trustees President Anthony Fellow said at the time.

When Black learned from unofficial channels that he’d been cancelled as commencement speaker, he wrote an open letter to PCC students warning he might take legal action.

It was after that, he said, and before he was re-invited to be commencement speaker that his attorneys began negotiations with the school. The money, he said, was repayment for legal and travel costs incurred during the back-and-forth with the college.

“I incurred significant out-of-pocket expenses on this thing and I told my legal team to recoup that money: ‘Make me even and let’s be done with it.’ My lawyer sent them a detailed breakdown of the costs, and they did agree to pay it,” he told me. “That was everything from travel costs to legal fees to an Internet legal team that specializes in copyright law.” (Every time news about his intimate photos resurfaces, he said, he has to pay professionals to make sure they are not published.)

Black was also supposed to have received a $3,000 honorarium – the college’s standard payment to its commencement speakers--but he told me he did not receive it, nor would he have accepted it. (The college’s spokesman did not return my call on that.)

Before his invitation was rescinded, Black said, “I never asked PCC for a dime, not even for my travel. It was something I wanted to do because it was my old school. I knew what it was like to be a student there and have people say, ‘You are not going to excel because you went to a two-year school and not a four-year university.’”

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It was a good message for students. Almost as good as the one they learned from watching their bumbling officials in action: Stupidity comes at a cost.

Please follow me on Twitter: @robinabcarian


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