CASE STUDY JAMES TUTTLE VS. LAKELAND COMMUNITY COLLEGE

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1 CASE STUDY JAMES TUTTLE VS. LAKELAND COMMUNITY COLLEGE Patrick Horn, Claremont Graduate University Ryan Robinson, Utah Valley State College In the case of James Tuttle and Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio, we may have the makings of a thoroughly puzzling constitutional dilemma. Lakeland Community College is a state institution with legal obligations to both the establishment clause, expressing the doctrine of church-state separation, and the free speech clause of the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution. The dilemma is whether Lakeland can avoid an establishment of religion without abridging the freedom of speech of an adjunct faculty member who taught philosophy from a Catholic Christian perspective. It appears that allowing Tuttle to teach philosophy in the way that he does may violate the establishment clause, but denying him the opportunity to teach these courses may violate the free speech clause. James Tuttle holds an M.A. in Philosophy and a doctorate in Catholic Theology from Duquesne University. He taught philosophy courses as an adjunct professor for several years at Lakeland. He taught these courses, many of which deal with religious and moral issues, from a decidedly conservative Catholic perspective. When a student complained to the administration that an introduction to philosophy course was too Christian, Tuttle s style and method of teaching came under the scrutiny of the college s dean, James L. Brown. Eventually, Brown sent a letter expressing his disapproval of Tuttle s approach, questioning his suitability to teach in a public school classroom. In the subsequent semester Tuttle was offered only one course of ethics and thereafter only a course in Logic. After turning down the option of teaching Logic, Tuttle was not offered any courses. He filed suit against the college, claiming that his First Amendment rights had been violated and charging the school s administrators with religious discrimination. Lakeland has not yet responded to the suit. Thus, information for writing this case study comes almost exclusively from the legal complaint filed by Tuttle and his attorneys. Attorneys for the college administrators will probably empha- 89

2 90 Teaching Ethics, Spring 2004 size other information that is not addressed in Tuttle s complaint. We will consider some of the issues that surround this case but a thorough examination of this particular case will depend upon the response of the college. Information for writing this case study comes from Tuttle s legal complaint, which includes his Introduction to Philosophy syllabus, a copy of a letter that Dean Brown sent to Tuttle, and a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Lakeland s response may appeal to concerns about the establishment clause; or they may argue that academic standards were the basis for not offering courses to Tuttle; or they may claim that Tuttle s legal rights are severely limited given that he is a part-time employee; or they may introduce new information that is not related to any of these. The focus of our case study will be upon establishment clause issues, free speech issues, and academic standards. We will not give substantial attention to the issues of religious discrimination or Tuttle s legal status as an adjunct. The first part of our study will examine whether the college s administration could in this case be legitimately concerned about a violation of the establishment clause. The second part of our study will discuss whether the case may involve a violation of Tuttle s free speech rights. The third part will consider the issue of academic standards as it relates to both the professor as an agent of free speech and to the college administration as the arbiter of academic policies. Some have been quick to argue that this case is not about the establishment clause. But the dean s letter to Tuttle, though not explicit on this point, implies that Tuttle s style is a violation of the establishment clause. The implication arises in the dean s statement that Tuttle may not be suitable to teach in a public school classroom and that he may be happier in a sectarian classroom. If Tuttle was not using his position as an employee of the college to promote a particular religious view, then the question of an establishment clause violation does not arise. But a closer examination of the details will not allow us to summarily dismiss this question. Tuttle s supporters maintain, and his lawsuit claims that student evaluations confirm, that he allowed free and open discussions in the Introduction to Philosophy classroom. Tuttle s lawsuit notes that he encouraged students to discuss both their own and his personal philosophical perspectives. The implication seems to be that Tuttle would frequently engage students in discussion and debate about his own religious beliefs. This style provoked discomfort for at least some of Tuttle s earlier students, as indicated by the disclaimer in his syllabus, which warns students of both

3 Horn and Robinson: Case Study: James Tuttle vs. Lakeland Community College 91 his religious beliefs and his candid style. The fact that a state-supported professor argues for a particular religious perspective in a class of noncaptive adults may not by itself be a violation of the establishment clause. But when such arguing is combined with additional factors, then establishment clause questions may legitimately arise. For example, reading assignments that are heavily weighted to the professor s religious perspective, or course requirements that shift the goals of a course from ones established by the institution to ones that fulfill a professor s religious aims. Four of the five required resources in Tuttle s syllabus are written from the Catholic perspective that he endorses. Based on Tuttle s syllabus, it seems that most classroom lectures, discussions, and debates were oriented to these readings. According to the lawsuit, classroom activities included debates in which he would try to convince students of the rightness of his perspective. All of these factors together make it appear that Tuttle used his position as professor to substantially advance his own particular religious perspective. Would it not be an establishment of religion for a state-sponsored institution to offer a course in which a primary purpose is to convince students of the rightness of a particular religious perspective over other perspectives? The establishment clause questions in this case turn on the distinction between the professor s personal religious beliefs and the purpose of the course. Where it can be shown that Tuttle intended to use the course to convince students of the rightness of his views, then it seems that the course was a violation of the establishment clause. Tuttle s personal religious beliefs cannot violate the establishment clause but a course at Lakeland Community College can. The establishment clause issues in this case cannot be thrown out until it is determined whether Tuttle s course, not Tuttle, promoted a sectarian view. As we have seen, there is at least some evidence that the course did in fact promote a sectarian view. The lawsuit and Tuttle s supporters claim that he was demoted (and essentially fired) because he revealed his religious beliefs in class. If true, it is highly likely that such action would be deemed religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Ohio state law. Tuttle s supporters quote the letter from Brown which says that it is unacceptable to state your case for your beliefs in the classroom. Two factors mitigate Tuttle s claim and raise the question of church-state separation: 1) Brown indicates in the letter that the course in question was a general education, lower-level class. Tuttle s claim makes it sound as if the dean was stating a general policy about the professor revealing religious beliefs in any classroom. But it is clear in the letter that the dean is

4 92 Teaching Ethics, Spring 2004 addressing the issue as it relates to a particular kind of course. 2) The dean s phrase, state your case for your beliefs, involves a great deal more than simply revealing your religious beliefs. Tuttle attempts to further support his claim by referring to a conversation in which the dean explained how he would teach courses by not revealing his personal religious beliefs. But there is no evidence that Brown tried to make it a policy that Lakeland Community College professors cannot reveal their religious preferences. Thus, it seems disingenuous for Tuttle and his attorneys to claim that he was demoted just for mentioning his religious beliefs in the classroom and on the syllabus. Brown was clearly upset because it appeared to him that a particular course intended by the institution to be an introductory survey course in philosophy was turned into a course on Tuttle s specific philosophical and theological preferences. For example, the lawsuit claims that critics of Catholicism were included in the curriculum. But those that might possibly be labeled as critics of Catholicism were only listed in the syllabus; there was no required reading that directly challenged or criticized Catholicism. On the contrary, as already noted, a majority of the required reading supported and defended a conservative Catholic perspective. Furthermore, Tuttle s suit claims that he did not advance or inhibit any religious beliefs in the classroom. This seems to almost directly contradict the syllabus in which Tuttle states that he is a passionate, controversial (not politically correct), candid and zany/earthy Catholic Christian philosopher. As a result, says Tuttle in the disclaimer, students sometimes find themselves on the opposite side of the net from me on personal issues concerning faith, religion, morals, and ideology. In order to accept the claim that he did not advance religious beliefs, one would have to believe that a professor s decision to argue his own admittedly deeply-held religious beliefs was not also an attempt to advance those beliefs. Tuttle and his supporters are correct to note the importance of religious issues in philosophical discussions. They are not as quick to note that such discussions often involve attempts to persuade others of the rightness of your own viewpoint. Given the required readings, the contentious nature of philosophical discussion, and Tuttle s declaration of his religious beliefs, one can question whether he did not advance his religious beliefs in the classroom. And now we may be able to appreciate why the case appears to be as much a dilemma for Tuttle as it is for Lakeland. If he claims that his free speech rights have been violated he will need to show that he was expressing his own thoughts, opinions, and beliefs in the classroom. But if his expressions in class are

5 Horn and Robinson: Case Study: James Tuttle vs. Lakeland Community College 93 religious he may have violated the establishment clause. This dilemma may help to explain why Tuttle s legal complaint contains more information supporting the religious discrimination claim than the violation of free speech claim. The religious discrimination claim is that Tuttle was essentially fired for revealing his Catholic Christian beliefs to the class. The school s action appears more egregious if it is presented as a simple matter of a professor letting the class know his religious preference and not a matter of a professor being free to teach whatever and however he wants. Thus, the legal complaint attempts to minimize the possibility that school administrators were motivated by establishment clause considerations. We have tried to explain, on available evidence, why such considerations cannot be lightly dismissed. Having considered the possibility that Tuttle s course was a violation of the establishment clause, let us consider whether Lakeland Community College may have violated Tuttle s free exercise rights. Should a professor be fired for simply revealing his religious beliefs in a college philosophy course? It is difficult to imagine how someone could defend such a dismissal. Should a professor be fired for teaching philosophy from a conservative Catholic perspective? The answer to this question is slightly more complicated. We have argued that this case goes well beyond the issue of simply revealing one s religious preference. Tuttle clearly wanted his personal beliefs to be a topic of discussion in the classroom. The free speech question concerns the restrictions that administrators can legitimately place on what a professor says in the classroom. Should state college administrators be allowed to prohibit professors from advancing their own religious perspectives in courses where religious perspectives are studied? Tuttle s course may violate the establishment clause but can administrators deny him the right to teach the course in this way? Free speech is an essential component of the educational process in higher education. When specific topics and subjects are addressed in a college classroom considerable leeway should be given for expressing thoughts and opinions about those topics and subjects. For this reason, teaching philosophy, ethics, and religion courses in ways that advance a particular perspective might legitimately be protected as free speech. The college classroom is rightly regarded as a free speech laboratory in which professors and students are given the greatest possible latitude for a free and open exchange of ideas. In matters related to religion, this exchange absolutely must include religious perspectives. Moral and political activism has a storied tradition in American colleges and universities. Since

6 94 Teaching Ethics, Spring 2004 these places obligate themselves for the sake of free speech, the obligations must extend to a wide range of perspectives on moral issues. This may even include protecting the right of a state-hired professor to teach a course in philosophy from a particular sectarian perspective. Tuttle represented Lakeland as an agent of free speech. The culture of higher education expects professors to both encourage and participate in a free and open exchange of ideas. A professor s position at a state college or university contrasts with other state-supported positions in that the promotion of free speech is not a central element in the jobs of the latter. A health inspector or tax collector is not hired as an agent of free speech. Tuttle, on the other hand, would have been expected to promote free speech. It appears from his syllabus and lawsuit that he attempted to do just this. He tried to create an environment in which students could openly engage in discussions about philosophical, moral, and religious issues. Even if he was promoting his own beliefs in the course, if he also allowed others to freely promote their opposing views then he seems to have fulfilled his expected duty as an agent of free speech. Promoting one s beliefs is an expected and common occurrence in philosophy courses. Tuttle thus created an environment in which the professor and students had a free and open exchange of ideas. It should not matter that the personal views he advanced were religious as long as he gave the students ample time and space to respond to his views. If the Lakeland administration denied Tuttle adjunct courses because they did not want him to advance his religious perspective in any classroom then they may be guilty of violating his free speech rights. The relation of free speech to the establishment clause in a state college setting turns on the distinction between institutional support for a free and open exchange of ideas and institutional support for only one particular perspective. The state institution should not identify itself with a particular sectarian view but in the interest of academic freedom it should occasionally allow courses to be taught from sectarian perspectives, including those perspectives that oppose other sectarian perspectives. The challenge for the institution is to demonstrate that it does not discriminate when hiring faculty and offering courses. Both the faculty and the course offerings should demonstrate the diversity of the academic field. It is unclear, based on our limited information, whether Lakeland has policies that are either anti-religious or unfairly inhibit religious speech. However, if Lakeland ended its relationship to Tuttle because he argued for a religious perspective in class, the college clearly

7 Horn and Robinson: Case Study: James Tuttle vs. Lakeland Community College 95 seems to have identified itself with an anti-religious perspective in matters of free speech. The dilemma has now been fully stated. Advancing religion in a state-supported classroom is a violation of the establishment clause. It seems to us that Tuttle did advance religion in the classroom. On the other hand, denying Tuttle the right to advance his religious beliefs in the classroom violates his free speech rights. It seems to us that the college did deny Tuttle his free speech rights. Whatever course of action the college took would be a violation of the U. S. Constitution. In this third and final section let us consider whether the dilemma can be resolved. Every context has limits on speech. I am not allowed to misrepresent a product in a sale. I am not allowed to walk around my neighborhood at three o clock in the morning reading the U. S. Constitution through a megaphone. I cannot say whatever I want to say in a classroom; university policies and state and local laws place all sorts of limitations on what I can say. Particularly, a college can set policies related to academic standards for the courses that are offered. This is the legitimate purview of a college administration, which usually includes a faculty governance structure. The dilemma we confront in the case of Tuttle and Lakeland Community College may be resolved by a consideration of administrative policies concerning low-level general education courses. Although we have little information about this case from the college administration s perspective, it appears that the dean was especially concerned that the course in question was an introductory course. In such courses it is commonly expected that the professor will introduce a survey of perspectives to the college students. Since the professor is looked upon as an expert in a field in which the student is only beginning to learn, professors will often maintain a neutral position on the issues so as not to unduly influence the development of students. In the more advanced classes the professor will more often argue for a particular perspective with students who already have some training in the field of study. Thus Tuttle s Catholic beliefs are germane to the topic of philosophy but the institution has an academic interest in making sure that introductory courses introduce a wide range of perspectives on the topic. The dean may have rightly been concerned that Tuttle used his position as professor to unfairly advance his Catholic beliefs to an audience that had no training in philosophical issues. In fact, many academics would argue that it was Tuttle s responsibility to teach a survey of philosophical perspectives so that by the end of the course the students would have enough philosophical training to engage others with similar training in

8 96 Teaching Ethics, Spring 2004 the basic issues of philosophy. One would not expect students to be able to engage at this level of discussion prior to such training. A free and open exchange depends upon a level playing field for all the participants. The playing field is not level when the professor has advanced training in the issues and the students do not. Consequently, the claim made in Tuttle s lawsuit seems incorrect to us: Defendants have a very limited interest in censoring the in-class speech of Dr. Tuttle as Dr. Tuttle s speech in no way affects the efficiency interests of Lakeland as Dr. Tuttle s employer. The Lakeland administration has a direct interest in the types of courses that are offered. If Tuttle s style negates the central purpose of a particular kind of course, then the administration has a right to ask him to change that style to meet the stated purpose of a low-level introductory course. Tuttle s lawsuit further claims that the Lakeland administrators cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. On the contrary, Lakeland administrators seemed concerned that it was Tuttle who was casting a pall of orthodoxy over the introduction to philosophy course by making his own views a central component of the course. Thus the issue is not Tuttle s religious beliefs but the manner in which he taught the course. Furthermore, the institution might have satisfactorily resolved the issue if they had allowed Tuttle to teach upper level courses in this style while demanding that he change his style in the introductory courses. Such a solution seems to us to balance the concerns of both the establishment clause and the free speech clause. Patrick Horn is Associate Dean in the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. Ryan Robinson is Research Assistant in the Department of Philosophy and Humanities at Utah Valley State College.

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