Monday, June 24, 2013

Gay Pride Ribbons, Extra Credit and Anonymous Sources: The Columbia State Witchhunt

Posted by on Mon, Jun 24, 2013 at 8:44 AM

Whew, doggie, this story about the professor down at Columbia State who supposedly forced her students to wear gay pride ribbons could not be stranger. The Columbia Daily Herald reports:

Columbia State Community College officials say they are investigating a faculty member after students complained she violated their First Amendment rights by requiring them to wear ribbons supporting gay pride.

So, that's weird and sounds pretty terrible. I mean, I agree that it would, indeed, be horrible if, to quote the Alliance Defending Freedom, students were forced by Professor Linda Brunton to participate in behavior that "their faith teaches is unnatural and immoral." But let's remember, they weren't be forced to be gay, but to let others perceive them as gay and see how that made them feel. Still, you could see how even this would be a problem for Christians, since they're prohibited from lying.

Oh, that prohibition against lying. Here's where things get really weird.

Again from the Daily Herald:

Former students said they received a similar assignment of Brunton in the past. In an email to The Daily Herald Wednesday, one student, who asked not to be identified, said she had been given a similar assignment two years ago and refused to wear the ribbon.

“I refused the assignment and wrote a paper explaining it was against my beliefs,” she wrote. “(Brunton) scribbled all over my paper and gave me a zero.”

But check out this story from The Tennessean:

Columbia State student Jeff Vernon, who attends Collegevue Church of Christ, said he took a class with Brunton two years ago. He said she was clear about her support for gay rights and at one point described those who oppose gay rights as hateful.

“I take offense at that,” he said. “I don’t hate anyone.”

But wearing the ribbon was a voluntary, extra-credit assignment, Vernon said. He did not participate and suffered no consequences.

“It did not affect my grade,” he said. “It did make for an uncomfortable situation.”

Note that Jeff Vernon, who is willing to identify himself, says that it was a "voluntary, extra-credit assignment." He disagreed with the assignment, disagreed with Brunton, and didn't participate. His witness is that did not affect his grade.

The student who refused to be identified also took the class two years ago and she says that she got a zero on the assignment. Now, it's possible that she did indeed get a zero on the assignment AND that it was for extra-credit and didn't affect her grade. But that's not what any reader would take from that Daily Herald story. In fact, it's hard to imagine "I couldn't do one of the extra credit assignments" would be much of a news story.

So someone should just ask Brunton if the assignment was extra credit or not, right? At The Tennessean, it at first sounds like the reporter, Bob Smietana talked to Brunton. He says, "A professor at Columbia State Community College wanted to teach her students a lesson about diversity." and how can he know what she wanted to do if he didn't talk to her? But, later on in the story, he says, "Brunton declined to comment for this story." Um, OK. So maybe we don't know what Brunton wanted.

But, surely, someone has a syllabus from the class that spells out the requirements for the class. I mean, at the least, the Alliance Defending Freedom should know if such an assignment is an actual requirement before going after Brunton's head, right? Again, from The Tennessean:

[David Hacker of Alliance Defending Freedom] would not identify the students who complained about Brunton or say how many there were. He also did not know if the organization had documents showing whether the assignment was required.

Hacker doesn't even know if they have any evidence?

I know that a common way to write a news story is to write what one side says and to write what the other side says and to let readers draw their own conclusions. And since Brunton isn't talking, it makes sense that her opponents are dominating the story.

But at the heart of this story, there are matters of fact. Was the assignment a requirement or not? Even if Brunton isn't cooperating with the media (and Lord knows, if I were in her shoes, I would not), many students have taken that class. The syllabus must be widely available. I mean, what if someone went to the Columbia State Community College website and found the name and course number for the psychology class available only in the spring? And what if she then googled "Social Psychology (PSYC-2120)"? How long do you suppose it would take for a googler to find a syllabus from that course? Oh my God, wouldn't the biggest kick be if she found Brunton's syllabus?

Yes, people, we can look at the course syllabus and other classroom materials ourselves and see what's required for the class. Shall we? Is there any assignment to wear a ribbon supporting gay pride? No. in fact, even in the more detailed Chapter Objectives part, in the section on "Prejudice: Causes and Cures," in which you might expect to find some discussion of homophobia, the objectives all deal with racial prejudice.

Worse than that for The Daily Herald's anonymous source who complained about getting a zero on a paper she wrote, the syllabus makes it clear why that happened. The syllabus says, "Extra credit (maximum of 20 points)-Based on your learning style, interests, and abilities, choose a topic from the course and prepare a presentation, demonstration, or class activity. Do NOT write a paper or create a PowerPoint presentation!"

OK, then, no mystery why the anonymous student got no extra credit for writing a paper. The syllabus is crystal clear that you should not write a paper for extra credit.

But again with the strangeness. Why has no one else gotten a copy of the syllabus? Why haven't they asked the ADF or the complaining students whether this was a required assignment or extra credit? Why haven't they asked them about the discrepancy between what they say is happening in the class and what the syllabus indicates?

Did the ADF go to the media and to Brunton's employer based solely on the word of students who won't even share their names? Doesn't the ADF have some obligation to find out the whole story before trying to ruin a person's life?

But more importantly, don't the reporters from The Daily Herald and The Tennessean have this obligation? It took me less than a minute to find the syllabus — a syllabus that raises some questions about these students' claims, which the students should answer before they get to be the heroes of this story. But OK, I'm a giant nerd who does a lot of Internet research.

There's been one person — Jeff Vernon — who appears to be acting with a great deal of integrity. He disagrees with Brunton, didn't like the assignment and could have hopped on the bandwagon looking to sink her. Easy enough to do. But instead, he says this was an extra credit assignment, and that he didn't do it and suffered no ill-effects.

Once you have someone willing to go on the record with his name, why wouldn't you go back to your sources and say, "Hey, another one of your classmates told me this was an extra credit assignment and that you weren't required to do it"?

As it stands right now, we've got a lot of anonymous people trying to ruin a professor's life, a "Christian Legal Group" that isn't even sure if it's got more than anonymous gossip to go on helping them, a couple of newspapers that didn't do the follow-up you'd think they'd do before spreading this story, and one lone dude who is willing to go on the record saying that the story as it's being told is wrong.

I'm putting my money on Vernon telling the truth, not only because he's got no incentive to lie, since he disagrees with Brunton, but since the available documentation backs him up. And if Vernon is telling the truth, it means that a lot of folks who are getting a lot of publicity as Christians think that, while homosexuality is wrong, lying and bearing false witness is A-OK.

Here's the question I really wonder: If these students know their stories aren't completely true, do they feel the least bit bad or strange about those stories being used to try to ruin a person's life? Or does it feel justified because that person made them so uncomfortable?

Oddly enough, if they retook Brunton's class — assuming Brunton still has a job in the fall — analyzing this whole thing would make a great extra credit project.

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