James Corbett Case: Update 12 Feb ‘11

We found some news to report since our last post on this topic several months ago: James Corbett Case: Update 05 Sep ‘10. The next few indented paragraphs provide background information, which most of you can skip:

This is about Dr. James Corbett, an Advanced Placement European history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, California, whose classroom remarks that creationism is “superstitious nonsense” were ruled to have violated the Constitution’s establishment clause. He was sued by Chad Farnan, one of his students — presumably a creationist.

Chad had also sued the school board — which was found not liable by the trial court. Both Corbett and Chad are appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Corbett wants to be exonerated, and Chad wants the court to impose even more liability. During the appeal, Chad dropped his claim against the school board in exchange for their agreement to drop their claim against him for legal fees. Only Chad’s claims against Corbett remain. Corbett’s attorney is Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s law school.

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has many of the court pleadings available online. See: C. F. v. Capistrano USD.

After briefs were filed in the appellate court, which you can read at the NCSE website, we’ve had little to report. But now, in the Orange County Register of Santa Ana, California, the source of most of our Corbett news, we read 9th Circuit probes anti-Christian ruling against teacher . Here are some excerpts:

A panel of three federal appellate judges Friday probed whether a Mission Viejo high school teacher who violated his student’s First Amendment rights should be held financially liable for his actions, even as the judges reconsidered the merits of the case itself.

That’s really all the news — the appellate court heard oral argument in the appeal. The next step will be the issuance of the court’s opinion, which could come at any time.

The rest of the article, which is quite good, discusses the issues that are at stake and some of the questions the judges asked the lawyers during their presentations. One of the judges asked whether there had ever been a case like this before, which would have put Corbett on notice that his conduct violated the First Amendment.

That’s a very interesting point, and we can guess the answer because if there were such a case it would have been cited in the briefs. We’ve been saying all along that if this case goes badly for Corbett it will set a chilling precedent for teachers everywhere. But if this situation is unprecedented, as it appears to be, then what should be done with the first teacher to ever face such a situation?

Another issue is whether Corbett should pay legal fees for the other side. The trial court had ruled that he didn’t have to, because he had “qualified immunity.” The creationist student’s lawyers want that reversed. There was apparently much back-and-forth between the lawyers and the appellate judges over the fee issue.

The article also quotes the lawyers for both sides about their reactions after the hearing. Corbett’s lawyer, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, said:

They [the judges] were properly concerned about whether any public school teacher should be held liable in a case like this, and where that line should be drawn.

Jennifer Monk, the aptly-named attorney for the creationist student, said:

We’re thrilled the judges seemed to understand the concerns with all of Dr. Corbett’s statements. We certainly hope this court will broaden the lower court’s ruling.

So there you are. Now we wait. The opinion may come down soon, or it could be months before we learn the court’s decision. Whichever side wins, the other is certain to ask the US Supreme Court for a reversal. But taking the case is discretionary with the Supreme Court, so whatever comes out of the 9th Circuit may be the final word in this matter.

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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2 responses to “James Corbett Case: Update 12 Feb ‘11

  1. Sorry about the delay, Dr. Corbett. All those links caused your comment to get blocked by the spam-filter. And it seems you’ve tested the limits of the software for the length of a comment. Some of the end got chopped, but I didn’t do it.

  2. If Corbett just said ‘creationism’ and did not specifically attack any religion, then he really should be OK. Every religion (and many non-religions) have creation myths. Belief in those myths is superstitious nonsense.

    As long as you attack all religions or none, then 1st Amendment rules shouldn’t apply.

    BTW: Isn’t California a single party recording state? Are there laws preventing the recording of the classroom without express OK by the instructor? (I know several professors that say ‘Do Not Record or Video’ as they actually sell their notes and lecture materials as tutoring or other resources).