Lawsuit accuses Fresno State of double standards

The Fresno BeeDecember 14, 2012 

A student who says his conservative politics got him in hot water with Fresno State has filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the university.

Senior Neil O'Brien, who's been a vocal critic of undocumented students, says the university has a double-standard when it comes to free-speech rights.

The university took disciplinary action against O'Brien after he made two unannounced visits to faculty advisors to a Latino student newspaper and questioned them on video about the use of the term "white savage" in the publication. One of the professors filed a complaint, calling O'Brien "hostile" and "belligerent."

O'Brien, a 29-year-old recreation major, says in his lawsuit that university officials barred him from participating in student government during the spring semester and from being president of his own campus club, Young Americans for Liberty.

University Vice President Paul Oliaro prohibited O'Brien from going within 100 feet of the Chicano and Latin American Studies faculty and staff and their offices and classrooms, the lawsuit says.

O'Brien contends that President John Welty, his administrators and some professors punished him for speaking his mind, but bend over backwards for left-leaning students and professors.

One Fresno State professor said Friday that O'Brien is tackling an issue that permeates not only Fresno State, but America.

"This isn't about race. This is about fairness," said theater professor Edward EmanuEl, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, but is an adviser to O'Brien's club.

"He's posing a question that no one wants to talk about -- is everyone treated equally?" EmanuEl said.

O'Brien and his attorney, Brian Leighton, said the answer is no. Leighton, a Clovis attorney, won a major case against the CIA in 2009 and has gained a reputation for challenging federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Because of the pending litigation, Fresno State officials declined to comment.

In a written statement, they said the university strongly values the First Amendment rights of students, staff and faculty. The university also supports the defendants and is prepared to defend them against O'Brien's allegations.

"We encourage individuals to exercise their freedom of speech, provided they do so in an appropriate manner," the statement said.

Since enrolling in Fresno State in 2010, O'Brien has made no secret about his opposition to the DREAM Act and professors in the Chicano and Latin American Studies Department.

He is best known for his criticism of former Fresno State student body President Pedro Ramirez, who made national headlines in the 2010-2011 school year when he announced he was an undocumented student.

While Ramirez was praised as a poster child for the DREAM Act, O'Brien created a website (therealpedro.com) that raised questions about Ramirez's driving record and participation in student government.

O'Brien said his views made him a target of leftist radicals. He said he was forced to carry a video camera in his backpack for protection against slander.

He reached a boiling point in May 2011 when he read a poem that he found offensive in the student-run newspaper, "La Voz De Aztlan." The poem begins: "America, the land robbed by the white savage."

He said if the poem had said "brown savages" or "black savages," heads would have rolled, but because it targeted white people, no one got in trouble.

Video camera in hand, O'Brien confronted the newspaper's faculty adviser, Victor Torres, the chair of the Chicano and Latin American Studies, and professor Maria-Aparecida Lopes, to demand answers.

When he peppered them with questions, they told him to leave and closed the door on him. They then called police and accused O'Brien of threatening them, the lawsuit said.

Police questioned O'Brien, and declined to file charges after watching the video, but Fresno State administrators decided to punish him, the lawsuit said.

Leighton said the university violated O'Brien's due process rights at a September 2011 disciplinary hearing because he was not allowed to show his video of Torres and Lopes. University officials also did not allow O'Brien to record the hearing, said he couldn't have legal representation and limited his cross-examination of witnesses, he said.

The charges were bogus, Leighton said, because his client never said anything profane to Torres or Lopes and "he never threatened them."

Leighton said the lawsuit will prove O'Brien was "punished for his politics."

O'Brien said it will also show that Fresno State has turned into what author George Orwell described in his 1945 novel "Animal Farm."

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others," O'Brien quoted from the book.

To prove the point, the two recalled a March 2010 incident at Fresno State when a few dozen students -- O'Brien and Leighton call them "radical leftists -- stormed the administration building and held a sit-in for eight hours. The sit-in was part of a "National Day of Action" that took place throughout the country to protest budget cuts to public education.

Leighton said the protesters were rude, disorderly and unlawfully occupied the building, but Welty and his administrators never punished them. On the other hand, O'Brien was punished for asking two professors questions about an offensive poem during office hours, Leighton said.

"It's clear the university is out to get my client," he said.

Neil O'Brien's civil-rights lawsuit against Fresno State

YouTube videos recorded by Neil O'Brien:

May 2011 confrontation with "La Voz De Aztlan" faculty adviser

December 2011 confrontation with Fresno State professor Luz Gonzalez and others

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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