Attorneys for the Fresno Unified School District and a fourth-grade teacher suing her bosses for allowing a radio host to accuse her of pornography at a public meeting, delivered their opening statements to a jury Monday, officially beginning a trial with both free speech and sexual harassment questions.
The trial centers around Mai Summer Vue, a teacher at John Muir Elementary, who believes the district should have protected her from sexually explicit allegations made by local Hmong radio host Pao Xiong at the May 28, 2014, school board meeting. The district contends that free speech laws required staff to allow Xiong to take the podium, and it asserts that no sexual harassment took place during Vue’s workday.
In January, Judge Alan Simpson ruled that Vue had a right to present her case before a jury “given the extreme nature of his (Xiong’s) statements and their apparent falsity.”
Vue’s lawyer, Pahoua Lor, was the first to address the jury of six men and six women on Monday morning.
“This case is about a school district that knew (Vue) was being sexually harassed and did nothing,” Lor said. “They knew (Xiong’s statements) were false and did not say so.”
Lor added that former Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson and current human resources administrator Cyndy Quintana, who also are named in Vue’s lawsuit, showed “outrageous indifference” to the welfare and safety of her client by allowing Xiong to speak after Quintana and associate superintendent Misty Her had verified that Vue was not in the pornographic video Xiong had referenced as evidence.
In April of 2014, Xiong made several graphic disparaging remarks about Vue and her mother on his Hmong-language show, which has several thousand listeners across the globe.
Lor said Vue shared her concerns over the humiliation Xiong intended to inflict on her with Quintana, who then relayed them to Hanson. But Xiong was allowed to speak. And after his statements, Vue was even escorted out of the public meeting by Quintana. Vue then sent a complaint to the district’s board of trustees and Hanson saying she was afraid to return to work, but received no response.
The district, Lor said, could have prevented the situation by issuing a cease-and-desist letter against Xiong prior to his statements. It has done this in the past in cases where a teacher would have been threatened by a speaker. Quintana or another staff member could also have told the public and the board at the meeting that staff had investigated the alleged video and found that Vue wasn’t in it.
Vue has been on leave due to mental issues inflicted on her by Xiong, whom she is suing in a separate case, Lor said. She has been on antidepressants and anxiety medication. She tried to return to work, but could not. Vue is asking for compensation for lost wages and emotional distress as well as punitive damages from the district.
May 28, 2014 The date of the Fresno Unified School Board meeting in which Pao Xiong accused fourth grade teacher Mai Summer Vue of being in a pornographic film.
Michael Woods, the attorney for Hanson, Quintana and the district, told the jury Vue was not sexually harassed because she wasn’t even working when Xiong made his statement. She was at that board meeting on her own time in support of the teacher’s union, of which she is an outspoken supporter. Vue wasn’t even teaching at the time, as she was already on medical leave before the meeting.
Woods said that Xiong is not an employee or vendor for the district and never has set foot on John Muir Elementary, so the hostile work environment legally required for the district to be held liable for sexual harassment did not exist. Vue, who Woods said has complained about the district in the past, also never filed a formal sexual harassment complaint.
Woods said that Her, the assistant superintendent in charge of John Muir, learned of the pornographic video at a Hmong cultural event on May 10, 2014. She and Quintana comforted Vue at the May 14 board meeting, saying they knew it wasn’t Vue in the video.
When Vue told the district about Xiong’s intentions the night before the May 28 meeting, Woods said Quintana asked security to ensure that Xiong did not have a weapon. She also asked the district’s lawyer if it was legal to prevent Xiong from speaking. Quintana was advised that free speech laws and the Brown Act, which requires that elected legislative bodies conduct their business in public, mandated the district allow Xiong to speak.
Hanson had no idea about any video or claims until the May 28 meeting, Woods said. When Xiong began to talk about pornography, he asked the district’s lawyer if there was anything to be done. He also was advised to let him speak.
Woods closed his opening statements by saying that Xiong did not raise his voice or do anything while speaking that altered his legal right to be there. Woods also noted that Xiong didn’t say the pornographic video was his only evidence of Vue’s alleged behavior, which means the district had to give Xiong a chance to present anything else he may want reviewed by the board. As Xiong didn’t file a formal complaint with the board, the district considered the issue closed on May 28.
What’s happened since May 28, 2014, remains in question. Lor said Monday her client has yet to hear back from the district regarding her claim, while Woods contended that the district has heard nothing official from Vue. The trial is expected to continue for the next few weeks.