A student at Fresno State University is suing his professors for allegedly putting him on disciplinary probation because of his politics, and he has video that he says proves his case.
The trouble started in May 2011, when Neil O’Brien, a senior at Fresno State who is active in student government, went to talk with two professors in Fresno’s Chicano and Latin American Studies Department. O’Brien, who is widely known on campus for advocating against policies such as the DREAM Act, the proposed law that would give young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, was miffed that they allowed a poem he found offensive to be published in a university-sponsored newspaper. The poem starts with the passage “America, the land robbed by the white savage” and continues along those lines.
When O’Brien approached the professors separately in their offices, the same thing happened in each case: they said they didn’t want to talk with him. Openly recording the encounters on a video camera, O’Brien told them he just wanted to ask questions. They again told him to leave, and closed their doors.
What happened next is what got O’Brien in trouble: The professors called the police. According to police reports, the professors said that O’Brien had been “threatening” and “harassing” them. Police took O’Brien in for questioning, but decided not to file charges after watching video he took of the incident (which O’Brien has posted online here.)
O’Brien, who filed suit in California Superior Court last month, says that the video proves he didn’t do anything wrong and that he was just asking questions. He said he taped the encounter—and typically tapes his political interactions on campus—precisely to avoid these types of claims. California has a two-party consent law for recording communication—meaning both parties must agree. But because O’Brien wasn’t hiding the camera and the professors did not object, his recording of the incident was apparently legal.
O’Brien’s troubles continued when he was called into the Dean’s office and told he would face a disciplinary hearing in which he would not be allowed to have a lawyer present.
In the disciplinary hearing, O’Brien says he repeatedly asked his questioners to watch the video of the incident—but they refused, even though he brought a DVD with the footage to the hearing.
University Vice President Paul Oliaro ultimately gave O’Brien disciplinary probation for a semester—which forbade him from serving as the president of a student group he formed (a chapter of Young Americans For Liberty) and banned him from going “within 100 feet of the Chicano Latin American studies faculty or staff or their offices or classrooms in which they are teaching.”
O’Brien said he thought the punishment was ultimately because of his political advocacy.
“I can’t think of a reason besides that they just don’t like conservatives, and just don’t like to answer questions on anything.”
O’Brien points to University President John Welty’s outspoken support for the DREAM Act.
“It’s time to pass the DREAM Act,” Welty said in a message to students, in which he went on to urge students to call their members of Congress about the issue.
O’Brien’s lawyer, Brian Leighton, says he thinks O’Brien is being discriminated against.
“What these professors can’t stand is that Neil shows up to all these university meetings… and he says what he thinks,” Leighton said.
The professors who were sued by O’Brien either did not respond to questions or referred questions to the university public relations office.
Advocates for free speech on campus say that “harassment” is the catch-all that university administrators use to punish students they disagree with.
O’Brien’s attorney expects that the case could take “a while,” and potentially more than a year, to work its way through the courts.
O’Brien says he filed the suit because he felt he had to take a stand.
“This school is totally Orwellian,” he said. “I just want to share my opinion when I disagree, and I shouldn’t be treated like a criminal for it.”
[Editor’s Note: Mr. O’Brien has a website that chronicles many of his anti-illegal immigration activities. There is also a page dedicated to his activism videos. One that caught our eye was of him confronting a “Brown Beret” saying the United States belonged to Mexico. There is also a link to donate through PayPal to help fund his legal efforts.]