One must really think through this article from the San Francisco Chronicle about some students, disciplined for praying in a college faculty’s office, being permitted to sue the college for violating their free speech rights. The story’s problem, and this may not be the newspaper’s fault, is that there seems to be little to no explanation for why the college attempted to punish the students in the first place.
The key to the story is the context of the alleged incident. In other words, how well can a reporter paint a word picture about an event that is at the center of intense litigation? Here is what we get in the lead:
ALAMEDA – Two students who were threatened with suspension at the College of Alameda after one of them prayed with an ailing teacher in a faculty office can sue the community college district for allegedly violating their freedom of speech, a federal judge has ruled.
The students, Kandy Kyriacou and Ojoma Omaga, said college officials at first told them they were being suspended for “disruptive behavior,” then held disciplinary hearings and sent them letters warning that they would be punished if they prayed in a teacher’s office again.
The women sued, and U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ruled in San Francisco that their case could proceed, saying a college student has the right to pray in private outside the classroom.
Although a public college, like other government agencies, must refrain from endorsing religion, Illston said in her March 31 ruling that an objective observer probably wouldn’t have thought that the Alameda community college was making any such endorsement just because the teacher bowed her head while the student was praying.
From the first four paragraphs of the article, we have a picture of a scene that includes two students praying with a sick teacher in a faculty office and that the teacher may have bowed her head during the alleged prayer. Was the office exclusively the teacher’s (no)? How sick was the teacher? How long was the prayer? What words were used in the prayer? Was the teacher known to be one to pray with students in private?
An even more interesting assumption that the newspaper made throughout the article is whether the prayer was a Christian prayer, a Hindu prayer, a Jewish Muslim prayer, or a Jewish prayer. One could assume that it was either faith or another one not mentioned in my off-the-top-of-my-head list. From a legal perspective it probably does not matter, but shouldn’t it matter for a news story?
The key to this scene is whether this prayer was indeed voluntary and whether or not it was the person’s office. Also important and very unclear from the story: who protested the prayer, and who filed the disciplinary action against the students? Did the teacher protest at all? Was the prayer a private one in the sense that only the three participants knew about it until they were interrupted? Or were other teachers in the room, or was the door open and others could observe the prayer?
The story gives the sense that the prayer was completely non-disruptive to a reasonable person. That is, a reasonable person drawn from an average sample of Californians or Americans. But I get a sense from the article that the average person at this college may not appreciate public manifestations of faith in a deity.
Later in the article, we get these details about the incident:
The case dates from the fall of 2007, when Kyriacou and Omaga were studying fashion design and merchandising at the two-year college and took breaks from class to pray with each other and other students on a balcony, according to their suit.
Kyriacou prayed with the teacher, Sharon Bell, at an office Bell shared with other teachers, on two occasions in November and December 2007. The second time, a day when Bell was feeling ill, another teacher entered the office and told Kyriacou, “You can’t be doing that in here,” and the student stopped praying and left, the suit said.
Kyriacou and Omaga received suspension notices 10 days later. Omaga was accused of praying disruptively in class, Illston said, citing testimony at the students’ disciplinary hearings.
Did the other teacher file the complaint, or did the incident become general public knowledge? I know this is early in the case and that at least one side is likely not commenting on the case, but the article should at least acknowledge that there are many facts unknown at this point.