Don't Smile (You're on Camera)

Student secretly records professor’s anti-Trump comments, after which a student group wants the professor punished and the faculty union wants the student disciplined. Are more such incidents to come?

December 12, 2016
 
Olga Perez Stable Cox

Every classroom is a potentially public space in the internet age. But should it be? The faculty union at Orange Coast College is squaring off against a student who shared a secret recording of a professor’s in-class comments about Donald Trump on social media. The video has attracted national attention -- and criticism.

“My experience talking to students is that they want a diverse range of professors and opinions in class,” said Rob Schneiderman, a counselor at Orange Coast and president of its American Federation of Teachers-affiliated faculty union, Coast Federation of Educators. “The problem here is the lack of dialogue, with students turning the classroom into a reality TV show when they surreptitiously videotape and publish it.”

Last week, the campus’s College Republicans group posted to its Facebook page a recent recording of Olga Perez Stable Cox, an instructor of psychology, talking in her human sexuality class about the results of the presidential election. Cox did not respond to a request for comment, but Schneiderman said she allows students to anonymously submit questions on note cards at the beginning of each class, due to the nature of the course. After the election, Schneiderman said, someone asked her to talk about how she felt.

The video begins midsentence with the words “white supremacist” and continues, “And a vice president that is one of the most anti-gay humans in this country.”

Cox can be heard saying, “So we are in for a difficult time, but again, I do believe that we can get past that. 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 creating the assault are among us. It is not some stranger from some other country coming and attacking our sense of what it means to be an American and the things that we stand for, and that makes it more painful, because I’m sure that all of us have people in our families and our circle of friends that are part of that movement and it is very difficult.”

“We are way beyond Republicans and Democrats and we’re really being back to being at civil war,” she said. “I don’t mean that in a fighting way, but our nation is divided as clearly as it was in Civil War times.”

Cox added, “My hope is we will get leadership to help overcome that. I will go over some coping skills, but before I do that I want you to know that the optimist in me -- first of all, we are the majority, more of us voted to not have that kind of leadership, and we didn’t win because of the way our Electoral College is set up, but we are the majority and that’s helping me to feel better.”

It's unclear from the video itself whether Cox was answering a question or decided to talk about the election on her own.

College Republicans filed a formal complaint about Cox and said on Facebook, “Did you know you're a terrorist for having supported Trump? I didn't but apparently that's what they're teaching in Orange Coast College’s classrooms postelection.”

The faculty union at the California community college responded to the post, writing, “This video violates the Coast District student code of conduct and California Education Code. The student(s) involved will be facing discipline.”

Orange Coast is a public institution subject to California code, which says, “The use by any person, including a student, of any electronic listening or recording device in any classroom without the prior consent of the instructor is prohibited, except as necessary to provide reasonable auxiliary aids and academic adjustments to disabled students. Any person, other than a student, who willfully violates this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor. Any student violating this section shall be subject to appropriate disciplinary action.”

Schneiderman said Cox’s syllabus for the course also prohibits recording class sessions, as discussions center on sensitive topics and, he said, there are students enrolled in the course whose parents likely would not approve -- including international students from more culturally conservative areas of the world. The union has not threatened legal action against the student, as has been reported elsewhere, he said. But the it expects that a disciplinary process will be followed.

Shawn Steel, a lawyer representing the College Republicans, filed the complaint against Cox with the administration, accusing her of “hate speech” and “bullying tactics.”

“Besides abusing her power as an authority figure and instructor, she wrongfully assumed all students were disappointed with the loss of Hillary Clinton,” he wrote. “Moreover, she attacked those who supported Trump. Several students were shocked by her behavior.”

Steel said that the College Republicans were a diverse group, and that one gay student had already told the college that he would not seeking counseling with Cox over “her abusive tactics.”

“The evidence from the video is clear,” he added. “We demand that [the college] immediately take steps to correct Cox’s behavior and to ensure that such incidents are avoided in the future.”

Regarding the disciplinary and legal issues at play in the case, Steel told The Orange County Register that the student who videotaped Cox was “well within his or her First Amendment rights.”

Juan Gutierrez, college spokesman, said via email that Orange Coast “supports respectful discourse between students, faculty and staff and the community.” The purpose of the college experience, he added, “is to share differing perspectives of complex issues. We are evaluating the situation from all perspectives and are cognizant of the rights of both the student and the professor. We are hoping that this instance may become a teaching moment.”

Cox isn’t the first professor unknowingly recorded by a student in class. William Penn, a professor of creative writing at Michigan State University, for example, was suspended from teaching in 2013 after he was caught on video disparaging Republicans on the first day of the semester. “If you go to a Republican convention in Florida, you see all those old people with their skin cells sloughing off them -- they're cheap,” he said. “They don't want to pay taxes because they've already raped this country and gotten everything out of it they possibly could. They don't want to pay for your tuition, because who are you?”

Penn looked at the class and said, “Well, to me you're somebody, and [looking at a student who appeared to be frowning] you can frown if you want. [Addressing that student] You look like you're frowning, are you frowning? … I absolutely don’t mean to offend you -- even if you are a Republican, I don’t mean to offend you in this class. Outside of class is a different matter, OK?”

Numerous other professors have gotten into hot water over emails, syllabi or other course details shared online. And sometimes the content gone viral doesn't reflect the full context of faculty members' comments. At Louisiana State University in 2010, for example, a professor of physics and astronomy was criticized for allegedly saying that “blood will be on your hands” to those who oppose regulating carbon emissions. Yet the full video of the professor's remarks actually shows that he was criticizing those who support regulation. “You want to get rid of the internal combustion engine,” he said mockingly to self-identified liberals. “How many people are going to die with that? How are you going to feed the people in the cities?” The professor said the video was a setup, that he asked tough questions of all perspectives and that it was recorded by someone who wasn't in his class.

Of course, Cox's remarks are more definitive. And it seems possible such incidents could escalate in the Trump era, as so many academics opposed his candidacy and the general public is still so divided over the election, with some groups critical of professors urging that faculty members be monitored for alleged political bias.

Cox already has been listed on Professor Watchlist, a new website devoted to “exposing and documenting” faculty members accused of discriminating against conservative students and advancing “leftist propaganda” in the classroom. (An earlier version of the site said it also profiled those accused of “promoting anti-American values.”)

Matt Lamb, who runs the site on behalf of Turning Point USA, a conservative youth organization, said Cox “is typical of the professors on the list” in that she “uses phrases such as ‘white supremacist’ or ‘anti-gay’ as well as fearmongering to promote her agenda, with little substantiation for why any policy is what she labels them as, instead of using her classroom as a place to debate.”

Lamb added, “I'm sure many students in her class are anti-Trump and some are probably pro-Trump, but instead of having an open debate about policies, she decided to use her class a bully pulpit. She is labeling any one who supports Trump's or Pence's policies as a white supremacist or anti-gay by extension.”

Asked if the watch list might encourage more students to videotape professors in ways that arguably violate laws, privacy or both going forward, Lamb declined to comment, saying he was not an attorney.

Schneiderman said the incident was unfortunate, as Cox is one of the campus’s most popular professors, in part because she is both open with her opinions and encouraging of dialogue. Asked if Trump supporters would feel comfortable engaging her based on her comments, he said Cox was asked a direct question and answered it honestly.

“If we were all under scrutiny every day and everything we said was videotaped, we’d all have a tough time,” he added.

The union noted on its website that the college has many international students who are concerned about the implications of the election.

“Our students include those from groups President-elect Trump has stated he wishes to deport or to bar from entry into the U.S.,” the post says. “In light of our diverse student population, it is appropriate for faculty to address the presidential election in their classes. It is understandable that some students were fearful about what the new administration may mean to their futures. It is also expected that some students will be elated that their preferred candidate won the election. This diversity provides the foundation for a rich, respectful dialogue.

“Our nation is currently struggling with how to have this dialogue,” the post continues. “The national mood of both fear and hostility make the work of our faculty even more difficult than usual. However, we must strive to maintain an environment where difficult subjects are discussed and where multiple viewpoints may be shared, in a safe and respectful setting. It is unfortunate, as well as disappointing, that some students in our college community choose to behave in a manner that undermines our long American traditions of academic freedom and open classroom discussion.”

The American Association of University Professors has opposed past incidents of unauthorized recording and public posting of classroom speech “because it interferes with the open exchange of ideas in the educational setting,” said Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary for academic freedom, tenure and governance at the organization. It’s said that such activity could cause students to be discouraged from testing their ideas and professors to hesitate before presenting new or controversial ideas to stimulate discussion.

“There is reason to be concerned that this kind of activity will be increasing in the current environment,” Tiede said, citing Professor Watchlist as one example.

So how should professors broach politics in the classroom, if at all? The AAUP's Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure says that teachers “are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” The provision has since been clarified “to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.” Its report “Freedom in the Classroom” notes that “So long as an instructor’s allusions provoke genuine debate and learning that is germane to the subject matter of a course, they are protected by ‘freedom in the classroom.’”

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