Professor Who Gave Students ‘Rainbow Ribbon’ Assignment Cleared of Any Wrongdoing

Back in June, Professor Linda Brunton of Columbia State Community College in Tennessee did something to upset some of the conservative Christian students in her psychology class: She made them think.

Here’s how the Religious Right group how Alliance Defending Freedom explained the incident in a letter to the college president:

[Brunton] required her General Psychology students to wear Rainbow Coalition ribbons for at least a day and to express support for the homosexual community while doing so. Thus, she blatantly violated principles at the very “heart of the First Amendment,” namely that “each person should decide for himself or herself the ideas and beliefs deserving of expression, consideration, and adherence” and that government may not “compel affirmance of a belief with which [a] speaker disagrees.”

Harsh words that we’d be rightfully upset about if the tables were turned… that is, if they’re true.

The assignment was to see how others responded when you promoted a minority viewpoint in that community and write a paper based on those experiences.

As I wrote back then, this was a great assignment, as long as there was a way for already-LGBT-friendly students to feel the same sort of discomfort:

Was this a good assignment to begin with? Absolutely. It’s good for students — especially college students — to step outside their comfort zone and experience what it’s like to be part of a minority group. In Tennessee, where gay rights opponents likely outnumber the supporters, pretending to be a supporter when you’re not is a good way to gauge what that’s like. You might even learn to empathize with people who think differently from you.

But this assignment sounds incomplete as reported. We’re not getting the full picture of what Brunton assigned since none of the articles tell us. What about the students who were already gay rights supporters? They weren’t going to get anything new out of wearing a rainbow ribbon. So did they have to wear a cross at a Pride rally? No clue.

Initially, it turned out the Christian group and other conservative media outlets lied about the most important aspect of the assignment. It wasn’t “required” at all:

… Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project, who said he is a friend of Brunton’s, said the assignment was voluntary.

“Students were allowed to opt out, and some did,” Sanders said. “And students were told that if they felt uncomfortable, they could take off the ribbons.”

That kind of puts a damper on the whole “persecution” idea… but the college ran a thorough investigation of the complaint and, after speaking to the professor and 34 of her students, they released their findings last week.

In doing so, they completely dismantled the claims made by the ADF, tossing aside reason after reason Brunton might have been in trouble:

The section in the syllabus regarding student grievance procedures addressed procedures for students to follow if one has an academic grievance. There is no record or evidence that any student took advantage of this procedure. No student from the Spring Semester 2013 classes discussed a complaint or grievance with the Respondent [Brunton], the Dean, the Division, or the Provost.

There is no evidence to support the allegation that Respondent brushed off concerns of students whose religious convictions prohibit them from supporting conduct their faith teaches is unnatural and immoral and no evidence that Respondent made “it clear that students had to hold themselves out as supporting the demands of the homosexual movement in order to receive credit.” Many students interviewed said the opposite of this.

The preponderance of evidence does not support a finding that Respondent violated either TBR or College policies regarding discrimination. It was appropriate for Respondent, as a Professor of Psychology, to give the assignment for students to wear a rainbow ribbon as an experiment for students to feel first hand prejudice and discrimination.

Some allegations were true, but if analyzed in context, they were not evidence of discrimination against students based on their religious beliefs, which is the substance of the complaint. Respondent did give the assignment to wear the ribbon for one day, to write a reaction paper, not to have an opinion on the subject, and not to quote the Bible as justification for being against the assignment. However, these facts, considered in context of an educational assignment, are not evidence of discrimination based on religious beliefs. The weight of the evidence requires a finding that the rainbow ribbon assignment was optional, not mandatory. If a student objected to the assignment based on religious or other grounds, the student could choose to complete a different assignment or create his own assignment with permission of the professor. In fact, at least three students took advantage of this option and completed alternate assignments to earn the points.

Only four of 43 students who participated in the assignment received a zero, and the two who allegedly received a zero because of their religious beliefs did not do the assignments but submitted a paper that they knew was not written according to the instructions for the assignment. Furthermore, several students who chose not to do the assignment received As and Bs as an overall grade in the class.

While Respondent’s comments in class could have been delivered with more sensitivity, they are covered by academic freedom.

Wow. They really can’t tear down the Christians’ complaint any more than that. It not only exonerates her, it gives her the opportunity to continue doing the assignment in the future.

When I emailed Brunton over the weekend, she was thrilled that the investigation had cleared her of any wrong-doing:

I am pleased that the investigation is over and that the administration concluded that I do not discriminate in my classroom. I’m looking forward to returning my focus where it has been for 32 years — on teaching and helping students learn.

I believe that the classroom is a positive place where learning and growth occur; it’s a place where new ideas are discovered and students learn to think critically in order to assess these new ideas. Developing such skills serves students well when they seek employment and interact with others.

I have a lot of respect for her. She went into the ring with the Christian Right and came out even stronger after it was all over.

Now she can get back in front of her students, which is where she deserves to be.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Gus

    I’m glad to see this write up. So often all we get is the words of the complaining students and their advocates on the religious right. This part is really important, and something that wasn’t clear from earlier accounts, and of course shoots any complaints about the assignment down quite solidly:

    If a student objected to the assignment based on religious or other grounds, the student could choose to complete a different assignment or create his own assignment with permission of the professor. In fact, at least three students took advantage of this option and completed alternate assignments to earn the points.

    With that in place, these students had absolutely nothing to complain about. Yet a couple of them managed to do this anyway:

    the two who allegedly received a zero because of their religious beliefs did not do the assignments but submitted a paper that they knew was not written according to the instructions for the assignment.

    Terribly lazy, just looking for an excuse to feel persecuted and get attention from right wing media, or both?

  • freddieknows

    WOW!!! The professor looks kind of “hot” for having done her teaching gig for 32 years!!

  • Michaela Samuels

    Love the follow-through, especially since it is exactly what most of us expected it to be. That is a great assignment that I would have loved to participate in when I took college psychology.

  • Captain Cassidy

    I bet this outcome was a tad surprising for the Christians involved. Another persecution myth busted. Who ever would have thought that right-wing Christians might make up stories of persecution and exaggerate and distort the truth to get sympathy and attention? I’m simply shocked, yes shocked I am.

  • Anat

    And of what relevance are her looks? Do you have anything pertinent to say?

  • Gus

    You are why we can’t have nice things.

  • pparf

    This is great news, but I fear the right-wing, persecution complex will continue to distort and report on the final claim of the investigation and not the particulars. If that is what happens, it shall merely add to the persecution complex. The college did the right thing, of course, but there is no way to control the selective reporting of those who wish to confirm their biases.

  • Kengi

    Thanks for giving us the view on this issue from the misogynist asshole perspective.

  • freddieknows

    Lighten up, Francis!

  • freddieknows

    Jump to conclusions much??

  • observer

    It’s worse the making them think, she tried to give them empathy.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Fuck off, freddie.

  • Kengi

    Reached an obvious conclusion based on evidence provided by you.

  • Michaela Samuels

    Second comment on the write up HAD to be about her attractiveness, huh? *eye roll*

  • Bitter Lizard

    And teaching black history month in schools clearly violates the religious beliefs of the Christian Identity movement and Ku Klux Klan.

  • Cake

    I’ll bet the christians who were most outraged by this story will never hear or care about her exoneration. For them it will be remembered as just another example of their persecution.

  • severalspeciesof

    Just more of “Lying for Jesus”. Glad the Professor was cleared and can continue. Now I wonder how the ADF will spin this…

  • Benjamin

    Freddie, you said a dumb thing. You brought the subject of this woman’s appearance into a discussion where it was neither relevant nor appropriate. You got called on it. Just say “my bad” and don’t do it again. Don’t double down on your dumb thing by getting defensive, telling people to “lighten up” or accusing others of “jumping to conclusions”.

  • RowanVT

    They won’t. At all.

    Isn’t it amazing how these organisations don’t follow the teachings of their own religion?

  • The Other Weirdo

    The witch! Burn her!

  • DougI

    A teacher got her students to think? She’s a witch! Burn her! I wonder when the last time these fundies were in a school? It’s pretty common for teachers to do assignments like this especially in a college. We did norm violations for sociology, outdoor behavior activities for theater, this is routine. But the bible thumpers think anything that doesn’t teach Jesus is a violation of their rights.

  • Michael W Busch

    Cut the lookism and the sexism.

    Your opinions about Brunton’s appearance are entirely irrelevant to this story and to the quality of her teaching. Ask yourself if you would have said the same thing for a male professor.

    And when someone explains how you’ve been bigoted in your speech, the thing to do is to go and re-think your words, rather than trying to defend the indefensible. And no, “I was joking” is not an excuse.

  • BobbyinTN

    Score a HUGE victory for the good guys and the non bigots in Tennessee and many things to this professor for making people think and for having the brains to cover her ass if the witch hunts began, which they inevitably did. Christians hate to think and they REALLY hate empathy for others.

  • Rachel Warner

    Hmmmmm…. A psychology class that make people think. I sense trouble.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    Christian Student: “She made me think and have empathy!”

    Knight: *skeptical look*

    Christian Student: “I… I got better.”

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    That dumb comment didn’t even vaguely resemble misogyny.

  • Kengi

    Denigration of women is part of the definition of misogyny.

  • Bruce L Arvidson II

    I wonder if the complaint was filed by the 2 who got a zero for the assignment. Probably didn’t read the directions of the assignment and went and partied with their bible thumping friends and then realized there was a paper due, but had no clue what it was about. That’s the religious fanatics for you.

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    No denigration involved, though. Sexism, yes. Arguably ageism, but indirectly.

    I fully support calling him out on sexism, but misogyny is a much worse thing that rates more consideration.

  • freddieknows

    Thank you. I can clearly see how my comment is much worse than comments like “fuck off” and being called a “misogynist asshole.” And it’s so much worse to “accuse” someone of jumping to conclusions than their accusing me misogyny based on one statement, especially since they know so much about me to be able to make that call. And thank you so much, Benjamin, for that fine example of self-righteousness. I’m sure you’ll grow up to become a great traffic cop for a blog, someday.

    At the end of the post, I was shocked to read she had been teaching for 32 years given the youthfulness of her picture. My comment attempted to show shock at the maturity of her apparent age. I apologize if my comment was misunderstood.

    To those of you who overreacted to my comment and posted rude comments, you may all line up now to kiss my very wide Irish arse.

  • Kengi

    Freddie denigrated her role as a teacher based upon her gender. Sexism used to denigrate women is a form of misogyny.

    Just as you don’t have to wear a white sheet and hood to be a racist, you don’t have to beat women to be a misogynist.

  • Kengi

    Privilege rears it’s ugly head (and ass) once again…

    What an asshole!

  • DesertSun59

    I can’t think of many cases where Christians haven’t just lied about whatever it is that they’re complaining about. After all, they have professional liars all over the airwaves. Let’s begin with DAVID BARTON.

  • Kengi

    Kind of like how atheists removed all prayer from schools. And the ADF which is now claiming atheists want to ban anyone from saying the pledge of allegiance in schools.

    To them it’s just “framing”, not lying.

  • freddieknows


    Again, you make conclusions and draw assumptions without knowing anything about me.

    You seem to be a little angry. I sincerely hope whatever is troubling you is resolved to your satisfaction and in a timely manner. In the mean time, if there is anything I can do to help, please let me know.

  • Kengi

    You are providing ample evidence of your views.

    What you can do to help is to learn something about social privilege, sexism, and misogyny rather than simply being butt-hurt when others call you out for your privilege, sexism and misogyny..

  • Rain

    Not to belabor the point, but I’m shocked, shocked that fundraising organizations would send out massive spammage of “scare mails” to their constituents cash cows. (And could care less about the consequences due to the sociopathic job description of being a money huckster.)

  • freddieknows

    My comment attempted to show shock at the maturity of her apparent age. I was not joking and make no excuses. However, I apology to the extent you misunderstood my comment.

    There was no bigoted intent.

    If it had been a male teacher with 32 years experience and their picture looked like someone from a 1980′s boy band, I probably would have made a similar comment.

    My comment was hardly indefensible. But even if it were, I have every right to make it and defend it if I see fit. You have no right to to tell me otherwise.

    Are we sure this is the “Friendly Atheist” blog? I see no one acting friendly and for a bunch of atheists, everyone seems to be acting “holier-than-thou.”

  • Amor DeCosmos

    What a fucked up world I live in where a compliment on a woman’s looks is considered denigrating…

  • Amor DeCosmos

    No, Freddie – with this crowd and especially those A+ assholes, you are not allowed to compliment women on their looks. Apparently, to them, looks are somehow inversely related to intelligence or something, so if you say that a successful woman looks youthful and attractive, you are actually saying that you think that woman are stupid and you hate all women, and you want to rape them.

  • Kengi

    What a fucked up world I live in where men don’t understand a simple concept like inappropriate context.

  • Michaela Samuels

    Every time someone gets his panties in a wad after being chastised for his own words, he calls the name of the blog to question.

    People just take that shit seriously around here, Dude. You’re not Satan incarnate for making a stupid comment, but now maybe take a second thought before posting completely unrelated things that could easily offend and upset progressive thinkers present. Lesson learned?

  • Gus

    No one misunderstood you, or your intent. What you did was reduce a woman in your comment to something to be judged only on appearance, especially since that was the first and only thing you had to say on this story, even very early in the comment thread.

    If you really don’t get what was wrong with your comment, then you need to go elsewhere and educate yourself. Women deserve to be judged on their words, actions, and accomplishments rather than their appearance. You’ve shown that you can’t respond to a story with a picture of a woman without commenting on her appearance, even when it’s a very small, low res image.

    What I’m trying to figure out is whether you are really this clueless or are just pretending ignorance to play it up for the MRAs out there or in a failed attempt to make everyone else look like the asshole. But in case you’re clueless: there’s really no excuse to be commenting on the internet and not know this by now, that’s why everyone is being short and blunt with you.

  • Bigus Mouthus

    Christians that falsely bear witness against those they disagree with should be thrown to the lions so they learn what it is like to have false witness brought against you.

  • freddieknows

    Thanks Amor -

    It became painfully obvious that I had unknowingly stumbled into a mine field. To some people, an explanation of my comment can never be good enough. They know more about my attitudes and actions based upon a handful of misunderstood words than I could ever possibly know and they have ferreted out its bigoted intent; unknown even to me.

    I think a person must have a chip on their shoulder to go out of their way to try to create an enemy where there probably is more than enough commonality to make an ally, instead.

  • Gus

    Your attitudes and intent don’t matter. You words were not misunderstood. The words reduce a woman to her appearance and are not the appropriate response to this story. If you want to be someone’s ally, maybe think about the effect of immediately making a comment about a woman’s appearance when reading an article that has her picture. Seriously think about this: you saw this article. You clicked on it. Maybe you read it, but you at least scrolled all the way to the end to leave a comment, and the comment you left was that she looks good for her age? That’s what you were moved to say about this? Is that comment helpful to anyone? Did it add to the story or the discussion? Was it insightful or amusing in any way?

  • DesertSun59

    Christians have to invoke ‘persecution’ because they’re adhering to an enormous lie.

  • freddieknows

    Thanks Michaela -

    With no offense intended toward you, specifically, I have learned a lesson.

    I’ve learned there are many self-righteous people commenting in here with very long sticks up their butts.

    They are very quick to judge and even admit that a person’s “intent and attitude” are irrelevant to their judgments.

    And if they think that’s what “progressive thinking” is all about, they have a long way to go.

    I wish you all peace and goodwill.

  • MikeTheInfidel

    Look, everyone! Freddie’s trying to be a victim now!

  • MikeTheInfidel

    “Apparently, to them, looks are somehow inversely related to intelligence or something”

    Freddie’s comment clearly meant that he doesn’t expect that anyone who has been a teacher for 32 years could be so attractive. He contributed nothing to this discussion that even vaguely mentioned her intelligence, instead opting to only discuss her physical characteristics. That was literally his only contribution. He showed no indication that he’d done anything but look at the pictures.

    This is not a matter of “you are not allowed to compliment women on their looks.” This is a matter of “if the only thing you have to offer is a comment about her looks, when they’re totally irrelevant to the story, you’re not seeing her as a person.” Context is actually a thing.

  • Michaela Samuels

    I think you mistake by adding “in here” to your rant about how people wronged you. There are self righteous assholes anywhere. Tossing blame on the assholes who react strongly to your clearly unnecessary, inappropriate comment is not exactly wishing peace or goodwill on anyone. It’s being just another asshole – and a vaguely sexist one, yet.

  • Captain Cassidy

    Yeah, don’t learn from what happened or nothin’. Drill down harder on your feelings of persecution and rationalize the damage you did by trying to hide behind the magic shield of intent, then flounce away. Make sure you use some passive-aggression while you’re at it, too, and make some sweeping insults, because that makes you look sooooooo clever and evolved. At the end, act like you’re the good guy and wish us peace and goodwill, because you’re just acting in love and everything and we’re the meaniepies who don’t have senses of humor–that’s not something abusers do all the time, so we probably won’t notice.

    Sorry, freddieknows. Intent isn’t magic. You said something ill-advised and hurtful, and when called on it, got even more ill-advised and hurtful and then demanded ownership of our perceptions and feelings and insisted that we feel the way *you* want us to feel rather than how we actually do when women are objectified and a woman’s appearance noted at every single opportunity. But the world doesn’t work that way, and despite your best effort, we’re not going to just go “ha ha, it’s so cute and funny how s/he made this woman’s appearance a factor in a story that had nothing to do about her appearance! Isn’t s/he just the wackiest card in the deck?”

  • busterggi

    Pretty sure schools in areas where those are present probably ignore that month and substitute teaching how right the Confederacy was.

  • Michael W Busch

    There was no bigoted intent.

    Your intention is not particularly relevant. You said something sexist and lookist. That is bigoted speech, and not acceptable.

    You have freedom of speech, but that is not the same as freedom to be a bigot without challenge. We all have every right to call you on your bigoted words.

    Stop trying to defend them.

    I am done.

  • Michael W Busch

    @michaelasamuels:disqus : Good that you called out freddieknows his nonsense, but you didn’t need to use subtly sexist expressions casting female-coded undergarments as bad to do so.

  • Carpinions

    I laugh when I see these conservative Christian legal groups try to take the FFRF model and fight in the opposite direction, and usually lose. Their legal people are either too stupid/blinkered to see how their side can’t win, or they are just in it for the money and have to look concerned. I’m honestly not sure which one it is.

  • Ida Know

    “Being persecuted” for your beliefs also carries an implication of rightness. I.e., “we are the plucky underdogs and they are the big bad meanies who want to suppress us because they’re afraid of the truth which we of course are privy to”.

  • Carpinions


    I think that’s Frank Luntz at the door…

  • Noelle

    Wearing a ribbon and writing a little paper about it is about as easy as it gets. If you can’t handle that assignment, college might not be your thing.

  • tomtallis

    Leave it to the incompetents of the Alliance Defending Freedom to tell lies in order to make a point. Of course this wasn’t about the teacher and it wasn’t about the students or their parents. They turned their lie into a fundraising opportunity and milked it for all it was worth. You can bet that they will continue to lie, this time about the conclusions of the investigation, and continue to beat the bushes until every last dime has fallen out. Then they’ll move on to another fabrication they can use to fleece the suckers.

  • McAtheist

    You are correct, it’s on the internet, it supports their version of the story, ergo it must be true. Let the re-posting begin.

  • Buckley

    “This is not my idea it’s a false one…he made me wear it!”

  • Anat

    Remarking on people’s looks is something that belongs in a personal social setting. Not in a professional setting. The post is about what Professor Brunton did in her professional capacity and how her actions were received in that setting. Not an appropriate place for that kind of comments.

  • eric

    I really doubt this will bust it. More likely, it’ll convince the more die-hard that the school’s administration is in on/supporting/part of the persecution of christians.

  • abb3w

    “And then the college said she’d done NOTHING WRONG!!!”

  • abb3w

    “Alliance Defending Freedom”, “Justice and Freedom Fund”, “Thomas More Law Center”, “Liberty Counsel”, “American Civil Rights Union”, “American Center for Law & Justice”, “Rutherford Institute”, “Foundation for Moral Law”, “Becket Fund for Religious Liberty”….

    I suspect there’s a variety across and within the groups of people’s levels of stupidity, delusion, and greed.

  • Michaela Samuels

    Panties in a wad? It’s before my coffee. I have no idea if you’re making a joke or sincerely upset with the expression.

    I just like any opportunity to get to say “panties.” ; )

  • Matt D

    She has a brain though, so I doubt she’ll see any merit in dating you.

  • ron

    It was wrong of he rto force her sexuality on others in school. she should be dismised

  • Feminerd

    I know, how dare she totally not ever talk about her own personal sexuality! Not shoving it in adults’ faces like that (most college students are 18+)! Why, I bet she neglected to mention a spouse or children or wear a wedding band or talk about a boyfriend/girlfriend at all, seeing these as personal things that don’t belong in a classroom!

    How dare she give an optional assignment designed to make students think without bringing her personal sexual orientation into it at all?

  • Nomad

    Nicely said Feminerd. Totally stole my thunder there.

    In other words, ron, I challenge, nay, I defy you to explain how any sexuality was being forced on anyone in this story.

    You didn’t even read it, did you? You’re complaining about what you want to believe happened because it gives you a vicarious thrill. Kinda sad, really.

  • Mimi Atlanta

    The two students who complained were 2 of the 4 student who received a zero. They did submit an alternate assignment but however, the assignments did not met the requirements of the rubric that the students had to follow and the two dumb asses, excuse me, I meant to say students received the correct grade based on the rubrics criteria which was a ZERO! It’s called choices and accountability clearly these two students who may have a clear understanding of the biblical academia have failed in COMMON SENSE IN LIFE 101! Geeeez! Praise the Lord for this professor’s victory and the University’s professionalism and just right out RIGHT doing the right thing! AMEN! AMEN!