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Student sues Fresno State faculty

A current Fresno State student government senator filed a civil lawsuit against seven campus officials and professors last month after he alleged his civil rights were violated following an incident in May of 2011.

Neil O’Brien, Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) senator of parking and safety on campus, filed an official civil complaint against, among others, Fresno State President John Welty and Paul Oliaro, vice president for student affairs on Nov. 14.

The complaint alleges a pattern of “conspiracy to violate [O’Brien’s] civil rights” by “left-leaning” campus officials stemming from an incident that took place on May 11, 2011.

On that day, O’Brien approached professors Victor Torres and Maria Lopes of the Chicano and Latin studies department after being incensed by a poem in La Voz, one of four ethnic supplements to The Collegian.

In that publication, a poem published by Chicano studies student Luis Sanchez, titled “America,” contained many controversial lines such as “America the land robbed by the white savage” and “the land of the biggest genocide.”

O’Brien approached Torres, the faculty adviser for La Voz, to question him about the nature of the poem.

“I didn’t really know what the purpose of that poem was,” O’Brien said. “I wanted to find out what they were doing with it and why, specifically if they were spending student money.”

O’Brien filmed the meeting between himself and Torres inside Torres’ office. The video can be found on O’Brien’s Youtube account, “ntrd,” titled, “May 11th video.”

In the video, Torres denies to answer O’Brien’s questions on the grounds he is with another student, telling O’Brien to make an appointment. O’Brien continually questions Torres, leading Torres to call campus police.

O’Brien then heads back to the desk of Lopes – who is accused in the lawsuit of telling Torres that O’Brien was “stalking” the hallway – to question her. Lopes closes the door on him.

After that day, O’Brien was determined to be in violation of the student code of conduct following a series of judiciary hearings and meetings with officials in a process the complaint alleges is “draconian.” As a result, he was subjected to two semesters of disciplinary probation.

Brian Leighton, O’Brien’s attorney, said that the video, which was not admitted as evidence in O’Brien’s hearings, demonstrated the university’s tendency to target O’Brien.

“He’s a libertarian constitutional conservative,” Leighton said. “And they don’t like that.”

During his probation, O’Brien was barred from being within 100 feet of the Chicano and Latin American Studies department or its faculty anywhere on campus, and could not participate in clubs or activities including ASI and the Fresno chapter of Young Americans for Liberty which he helped found.

Leighton said that O’Brien wasn’t the campus’ only target.

“Nobody gets punished except those that espouse a contrary view,” Leighton said. “That’s what this campus does.”

Besides Welty, Oliaro, Torres, and Lopes, three others are named as defendants in the suit.

They are: Luz Gonzalez, dean of social sciences which includes Chicano and Latin studies;  Carolyn Coon, dean of student affairs; and Matthew Jendian, sociology department chairman.

The officials and professors named as defendants could not comment on an open lawsuit, but in a statement, Fresno State said it would stand by its faculty.

“Fresno State strongly values and supports the First Amendment rights of all students, faculty, staff and administrators,” the statement said. “We encourage individuals to exercise their freedom of speech, provided they do so in an appropriate manner.

While the university cannot discuss the details of any disciplinary action taken against Mr. O’Brien, Fresno State has an established student discipline process that ensures fairness to all parties involved. We believe strongly that the individuals named as defendants in the lawsuit did not violate Mr. O’Brien’s rights and we support them in their defense against Mr. O’Brien’s allegations.”