A college instructor in Orange County will return to his teaching position later this month after he was barred from campus over a confrontation with Muslim students in his class.
The four-month-long suspension of political science instructor Ken Hearlson from his position at Orange Coast College has triggered a national debate about free speech in higher education, particularly in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A Sept. 18 classroom discussion on the World Trade Center attacks and their comparison to suicide bombings in Israel set off the furor at the community college in Costa Mesa.
Hearlson, a 57-year-old Marine veteran who describes himself as a "born-again Christian conservative" and "blue-collar professor," opened the evening class session with some provocative questions.
Why, he asked, have Muslim nations failed to uniformly condemn Osama bin Laden? Why do leading Muslim spokesmen deny the Holocaust and complain that the Nazis had not killed enough Jews?
Hearlson also criticized a flyer circulated on campus and signed by Hizb-Ul-Haq (Party of Truth) that was headed "The Reality of Zionism" and showed a swastika superimposed on a Star of David.
Four Muslim students in the class complained to the college that during the class, Hearlson pointed a finger at one of them, saying, "You drove two planes into the World Trade Center," "You killed 5,000 people" and "You are a terrorist."
Two days after the class, Hearlson was placed on paid administrative leave and barred from the campus where he has taught for 18 years as a tenured instructor.
Following the suspension, the college district appointed an independent counsel, Geraldine Jaffe, to investigate the matter.
After interviewing 25 witnesses and listening to audiotapes of the class session, Jaffe concluded that "most of the allegations" by the Muslim students "are unsubstantiated."
College President Margaret Gratton then lifted Hearlson's suspension, effective at the start of the spring semester, but also sent a confidential letter to the instructor that he described as a "reprimand."
Left unresolved was the question of a teacher's freedom of speech in the classroom. This issue has made the case somewhat of a cause celebre among academics and teachers' unions across the country.
The issue of due process and to what extent political sensitivities are propelling college administrators to abridge free expression are also at stake.
"In this politically correct environment, innocence is no longer a sufficient defense," Thor Halvorssen, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told the Los Angeles Times. "They reprimand a man who they themselves declared was innocent, and that's unspeakable."
Hearlson said that the letter of reprimand "puts me in a box. I can't say anything that might offend any ethnicity or religion."
He makes no bones that as a member of the Calvary Chapel, a Protestant church "that you might call fundamentalist" and which sends large groups of pilgrims to Israel, he is a great believer in the Jewish state.
"We know more about the Hebrew Bible than many of our Jewish students," he said.
He faults the college administration for "looking the other way" during anti-Jewish rallies on campus and taking no action when a rabbi, trying to address a group, was shouted down by Muslim students.
"These Muslim students can say what they want in their hate rallies, that's freedom of speech, but when I speak up, I'm suspended," Hearlson added.
Hearlson said he has received death threats but has been heartened by the support of colleagues and 348 students who signed a petition on his behalf.
He said he also appreciated the advice and support of the Orange County chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, and plans to invite a speaker from the Simon Wiesenthal Center when he is finally allowed back into his classroom.