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Making the grade

Law | Los Angeles student lambasted by professor over religious speech

Issue: "2010 Election: The Governors," Oct. 23, 2010

Jonathan Lopez, a student at Los Angeles City College (LACC), delivered in the fall of 2008 an informative speech to his Speech 101 class on a topic of his choosing. Lopez chose to speak about Christianity, God, and how he has witnessed God's actions in his life and others. He referenced verses from the Bible and read the definition of marriage from a dictionary-defining it to be the union between man and woman. Lopez's professor stopped him mid-speech, called him a "fascist bastard," and refused to let him finish. The professor told the class that anyone offended by the speech could leave. No one left. Lopez never received a grade on his speech. Instead, the professor wrote, "Ask God what your grade is."

Lopez sued LACC for violating his First Amendment and equal protection rights. He also challenged LACC's sexual harassment policy as a violation of the First Amendment, asserting it is overbroad, vague, and could apply to the speech Lopez seeks to engage in. The district court agreed. On Sept. 17 the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the grant of a preliminary injunction against the university's speech code. Meanwhile, LACC has changed its speech policies to bring them more in line with the First Amendment, and the claims against the professor who silenced Lopez continue.
(Editor's note: This article has been edited to reflect that the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversal of the preliminary injunction and that the case against the LACC professor continues.)

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Corporate support

Beginning in 1993, Shell Oil's Nigerian-based subsidiary aided the Nigerian government in stopping Ogoni protests against regional oil production. Shell allegedly provided ammunition, transportation, and other logistical support to the Nigerian military, with protestors allegedly murdered, tortured, arrested, and exiled. The Ogoni people sued Shell and other corporations and their subsidiaries under the Alien Tort Statute. Enacted in 1789, this statute gives U.S. courts jurisdiction to hear claims by non-U.S. citizens harmed by violations of international law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 17 found the law only applies to claims against individuals, not corporations. In a 2-1 decision, the majority reasoned that because no corporation has ever been held liable for any matter under customary international human-rights law, the Alien Tort Statute does not apply to corporations. Although agreeing with the case's dismissal based on a pleading error, Judge Pierre Leval vehemently disagreed that the statute is limited to individuals, finding the outcome to be a "substantial blow to international law and its undertaking to protect fundamental human rights." In Judge Leval's opinion, the majority's rule will allow corporations to profit from the exploitation of human-rights violations.

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