OCC suspends student who recorded professor’s anti-Trump comments; appeal is filed
The Orange Coast College student who secretly video-recorded his human-sexuality professor’s classroom comments calling President Trump’s election victory “an act of terrorism” is being suspended for violating campus policy, though he has appealed the decision.
In a Feb. 9 letter, Victoria Lugo, interim dean of students at the Costa Mesa college, informed Caleb O’Neil of the suspension for one “primary (fall/spring) semester in addition to the summer” and other disciplinary actions against him, including that he submit a written apology to the professor, Olga Perez Stable Cox, and a three-page essay asking him to examine why he filmed Cox’s class, how he feels about his footage going viral online and his reaction to its causing “damage to Orange Coast College students, faculty and staff.”
The letter did not specify whether the suspension would begin this semester or in a future one. It told O’Neil he had the right to appeal.
“If you choose to appeal, your sanctions will be deferred until the outcome of your appeal is determined,” the letter states.
Lugo’s letter, posted on the conservative-leaning higher-education news site CampusReform.org, contends O’Neil’s actions violated the student code of conduct because he filmed Cox’s class without her knowledge or consent.
Cox’s course syllabus also stated that in-class recording is not permitted.
OCC recently posted signs in its classrooms reminding students that “video and/or audio recording without instructor permission is prohibited.”
OCC spokesman Juan Gutierrez declined to comment Wednesday on whether Cox is facing any disciplinary action over her comments.
O’Neil, 19, a freshman business student and Newport Harbor High School alumnus, had previously not been identified.
He has appealed the suspension, alleging that his legal rights have been violated, according to his attorney, William Becker of Freedom X, a Los Angeles-based law firm that says it is dedicated to “protecting conservative and religious freedom of expression.”
A notice of appeal to OCC Dean of Students Derek Vergara that is posted on Freedom X’s website contends that the “sanctions imposed on Caleb are both excessive and discriminatory.”
The letter, dated for Thursday, says Cox’s class syllabus states “the purpose of the course is to provide a safe and respectful place” but argues she veered from that policy when making her post-election comments in class.
According to the letter, O’Neil is an “academic achiever” who earned a 3.8 grade-point average last semester. He is a member of the college’s men’s varsity rowing team.
According to the video, after the Nov. 8 election, Cox spoke to her class about Trump and now-Vice President Mike Pence, saying, “Our nation is divided. We have been assaulted. It’s an act of terrorism.”
“One of the most frightening things for me, and most people in my life, is that the people committing the assault are among us,” she said. “It is not some stranger from some other country coming in and attacking our sense of what it means to be an American and the things that we stand for.”
Cox, who is gay, referred to Trump as a “white supremacist” and to Pence as “one of the most anti-gay humans in this country.”
In the notice of appeal letter, O’Neil, a registered Republican, details his account of what happened in the class on Nov. 15: “She ... went into how terrible the election was and how our nation had just been attacked. After two minutes of this, I pulled my phone out and started recording because I was terrified that my grade would drop to a B because I had missed the last Tuesday class for the election. ... She then said that we are back to being in a civil war. I felt as if all the eyes in the room were on me because in the past I have worn Trump gear and my signed Trump hat that I had gotten at the Anaheim rally.”
He noted that he had three Trump stickers on the back of his car and said he “was terrified about going to my car and having some crazed student come after me.”
O’Neil shared his video with the Orange Coast College Republicans club, whose president at the time, Joshua Recalde-Martinez, posted it online. Though O’Neil’s video is about two minutes long, he said in the appeal notice that Cox spoke for 20 minutes.
News of the video spread quickly, sparking a nationwide debate between those who said Cox had the academic freedom to express her views in a private setting and those who argued that her statements went too far.
Recalde-Martinez said he spoke with O’Neil about the suspension last week. He said he told O’Neil that he felt sorry for him and was “completely disgusted by what the school did to him … and that I’d fight to the nail with him in the appeals process.”
Rob Schneiderman, president of the Coast Federation of Educators, which represents instructors in the Coast Community College District, said the incident has been unfortunate for students and faculty members.
“There are no winners here,” he said. “The faculty is less likely to be expressive, guest speakers are less likely to come into campus, and the students, sadly, had consequences too.”
On Wednesday afternoon, O’Neil and Becker appeared at a news conference outside the OCC administration building. About 20 people cheered in support of O’Neil. One chanted, “You’re a hero, Caleb!”
O’Neil, often speaking to the crowd with his head lowered, called Cox “a good teacher” but said she “directly attacked” conservative students like him.
“I was scared I’d have repercussions on my grades because she knew I was a Trump supporter,” said O’Neil, who later added that he received an “A” in the class.
If O’Neil had not video-recorded Cox’s comments, college administrators wouldn’t have believed his account, Becker said.
“Video evidence is better evidence,” he said.
“Hate is a two-way street, and fairness is a two-way street as well,” Becker added. “That means the same rules apply to people who voted for Trump as people who voted for Hillary [Clinton]. And those rules aren’t being applied to Orange Coast College right now.”
Attempts to find Cox on campus for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful.
She said in a Washington Post article in December that she had been living in fear because of hundreds of email and social media attacks against her and even threats of violence.
Cox told the Post that if she could make her comments again, she wouldn’t change her language. She said she believes the controversy is part of a “very carefully planned plot to attack college professors that they don’t like and disagree with.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
According to Cox’s biography on OCC’s website, she was born in Cuba and immigrated to the United States when she was 10. She has been teaching at OCC for at least 30 years.
She holds a master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling from Chapman University and a bachelor’s in sociology from Cal State Fullerton.
Reaction to O’Neil’s suspension was varied among OCC students Wednesday morning.
“We’re in college and we should be allowed to voice our own opinions here,” said computer science student Alex Cerros, 20. “It’s unfair for the teacher to be secretly recorded. The student should have talked to the professor and voiced his opinions, then the fallout would’ve been avoidable.”
Luis Cruz, a 20-year-old biology student, said he felt O’Neil “did the right thing.”
“I don’t think he should be suspended,” Cruz added. “Teachers shouldn’t ever bring up politics, and she should have known the consequences. The worst thing school should do is drop him from class.”
Kendall Walker, a 22-year-old chemistry student from Newport Beach, said Cox now has to worry about her career because of the video. O’Neil has to face the consequences for sharing it, Walker said.
“If I were him, I wouldn’t have publicized it but instead talked to the professor instead of exploiting her like that,” she said.
Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County, called O’Neil’s punishment an “abhorrent decision from the Orange Coast College administration [that] clearly affirms their disdain for one of our nation’s most cherished freedoms: freedom of speech. The Republican Party of Orange County categorically opposes this administration’s attempt to trample over its students’ civil rights, and we will be doing everything in our power to support Caleb O’Neil in his effort to appeal the decision.”
Priscella Vega writes for Times Community News.