Former Fresno Unified School District Superintendent Michael Hanson, testifying Monday in a free speech and harassment trial in Fresno County Superior Court, described statements made about a fourth-grade teacher at a board meeting as “distasteful,” but said the board of education cannot control what speakers say at a public meeting.
Hanson said there had been many times in his 11 1/2 years as superintendent when “people have come and taken verbal shots at staff, board members and including myself.” And the comments were sometimes quite harsh and “ugly in many instances,” he said.
Hanson was terminated without cause in January after he announced plans to step down at the end of this school year.
Mai Summer Vue, a teacher at John Muir Elementary, alleges the district should have protected her from sexually explicit allegations made by local Hmong radio host Pao Xiong at a May 28, 2014, school board meeting. The district says 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 April of 2014, Xiong made several graphically explicit remarks about Vue and her mother on his Hmong-language show, which has several thousand listeners across the globe. Vue’s lawyer, Pahoua Lor, has said Vue shared her concerns over the humiliation Xiong intended to inflict on her with human resources administrator Cyndy Quintana, who then relayed them to Hanson. But Xiong was allowed to speak at the school board meeting.
Vue alleges that Hanson and Quintana showed “outrageous indifference” to the welfare and safety of Vue by allowing Xiong to speak at the board meeting.
If there were merit to his allegations then Miss Vue would not be a teacher in Fresno Unified.
Michael Hanson, former Fresno Unified School District superintendent
Hanson said Monday that the board can only control the time, place and manner of comments made in public session – but not the content. While he found Xiong’s statements at the board meeting to be distasteful, they were not disruptive, he said.
Vue contends that the district could have issued a cease-and-desist letter against Xiong prior to his speaking, as it has done in past 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.
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.”
In questioning Monday by Lor, Hanson said he could not recall making a formal determination about the truthfulness of Xiong’s statements about Vue, but he said “if there were merit to his allegations then Miss Vue would not be a teacher in Fresno Unified.”
Hanson said he had not had any contact with Xiong before or since the board meeting and and would not recognize him now.
Michael Woods, the attorney for Hanson, Quintana and the district, said in opening statements last month that Vue was not sexually harassed because she wasn’t 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. And Xiong is not an employee or vendor for the district and has never 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. Woods said the district’s lawyer was queried on the legality of preventing Xiong from speaking at the board meeting. 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.
Woods said Vue also never filed a formal sexual harassment complaint.
Vue argues that she sent a complaint to the district’s board of trustees and Hanson saying she was afraid to return to work, but received no response.
On Monday, Hanson said he received an email from Vue on the day after the board meeting and referred it to the head of human resources and labor relations, sending a copy to the district’s legal counsel. And he alerted board members of the email and how it would be handled, he said.
In the past, Vue had been critical of Hanson, including asking him to take a pay cut on behalf of teachers. But asked by Woods on Monday if he held any ill will toward Vue, Hanson said absolutely not. “Having been the target of distasteful comments, I understand how it feels to be in that situation.”
Vue has been on leave due to mental issues inflicted on her by Xiong, whom she is suing in a separate case, Lor has said. Vue 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.