Education

Did Fresno Unified let speaker harass teacher? Or did free speech rules prevent action?

Mai Summer Vue, in October 2008. Vue, a Fresno Unified teacher, is suing the district alleging officials failed to prevent a school board speaker from sexually harassing her in 2014.
Mai Summer Vue, in October 2008. Vue, a Fresno Unified teacher, is suing the district alleging officials failed to prevent a school board speaker from sexually harassing her in 2014. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

A civil trial that will probe whether the Fresno Unified School District was protecting the public’s right to free speech or just allowing someone to sexually harass a teacher at a school board meeting nearly three years ago.

Schoolteacher Mai Summer Vue alleges in her Fresno County Superior Court lawsuit that school trustees, Superintendent Michael Hanson and his administrative staff failed to stop Pao Xiong, who also goes by Nao Pao Xiong, from saying derogatory and false things about her during a school board meeting in May 2014.

Vue, 48, has accused district officials of intentional infliction of emotional distress for allowing Xiong to call her a porn star and humiliate her in front of a packed meeting of parents, students, teachers and others. In a separate lawsuit, she sued Xiong for defamation. That lawsuit is pending.

Lawyers hired by the school district say in court papers that Xiong is not employed by the district, therefore the district is not liable for his conduct. In addition, preventing the public from talking about a school employee would amount to censorship.

“Defendants had no right or obligation to protect plaintiff by restraining public speech,” Fresno lawyers Deborah Byron and Michael Woods said in court documents. “Such would amount to an illegal prior restraint.”

But Judge Alan Simpson said in a ruling last week that Vue has issues that should be settled by a jury: “Given the extreme nature of his (Xiong’s) statements and their apparent falsity, these appear to be facts from which a jury could conclude that they are outrageous and beyond the bounds of what should be allowed in a civilized community.”

Simpson also noted that the school board could have stopped Xiong because its own rules prohibit the public from being “loud, insulting and/or demeaning.”

The trial was about to begin Tuesday when it was learned certain witnesses were unavailable. So the opening was rescheduled for March 20.

Given the extreme nature of his (Xiong’s) statements and their apparent falsity, these appear to be facts from which a jury could conclude that they are outrageous and beyond the bounds of what should be allowed in a civilized community.

Judge Alan Simpson

In her lawsuit, Vue is seeking unspecified damages, contending her emotional and physical well-being and her reputation has suffered and will continue to suffer. Simpson also ruled that Vue can ask the jury for punitive damages against Hanson and Cyndy Quintana, human relations administrator for the district, if Vue proves that the two defendants acted with “reckless indifference” toward her at the May 2014 board hearing.

Vue is a social activist who was elected president of the Fresno Teachers Association in 2012, only to lose in a re-vote.

Her trial pits Woods and Byron against Fresno attorney Pahoua Lor, who represents Vue. Lor is known for her representation of Summerset Village Apartments tenants who have sued their landlord, Chris Henry, for having to live in squalid conditions for a month in November 2015.

The witness list for Vue’s civil trial includes Hanson, Quintana and board trustee Valerie Davis, who will testify on behalf of the district. Former trustees Larry Moore and Michelle Asadoorian will be testifying on Vue’s behalf.

The lawsuit accuses Xiong of identifying Vue as a teacher and harassing her on the internet and in the Hmong media, starting in April 2014. His audience was “the Hmong community throughout the world, including Fresno County,” the lawsuit says. His shows drew listeners from Australia, France, Thailand, Laos and the United States.

During his shows, Xiong allegedly used derogatory terms in accusing Vue of sleeping with several men and said she “got pregnant three times and aborted all your pregnancies,” the lawsuit says. A frequent user of YouTube, Xiong also accused Vue of being a porn star, the lawsuit says.

Because of the harassment, Vue reported the harassment to the Fresno Police Department, the lawsuit says. She also told Assistant Superintendent Misty Her and Quintana. The lawsuit says Vue gave Quintana a computer disc of Xiong’s recordings and photographs of Xiong. Quintana watched Xiong’s pornography video and determined Vue was not in it, the lawsuit says.

Vue says she told Quintana that she wanted the district to help her, but Quintana failed to take steps to keep Vue safe, the lawsuit says.

The witness list includes Superintendent Michael Hanson and board trustee Valerie Davis, who will testify on the district’s behalf. Former trustees Larry Moore and Michelle Asadoorian will testify on Vue’s behalf.

On May 28, 2014, Vue told Her and Quintana that Xiong had broadcast on Hmong media that he would be attending that night’s school board meeting “for the sole purpose of sexually harassing and defaming Ms. Vue,” the lawsuit says. “Ms. Vue also stated over and over that she was afraid of her life and afraid of what Mr. Xiong would do to her and others at the meeting based on Mr. Xiong’s erratic behaviors.”

The lawsuit says Quintana was supposed to notify security at the board meeting and distribute photographs of Xiong to staff and Associate Superintendent Kim Mecum.

Vue contends she told Quintana that she wanted to attend the board meeting because the teachers union was holding a rally at district headquarters to talk about wages.

“Based on Ms. Quintana’s assurances that steps would be taken to keep her safe, Ms. Vue decided to attend the FUSD School Board meeting,” the lawsuit says.

While in the lobby, Ms. Vue noticed a number of Asians and Hmong members, including Xiong. Vue says she notified Mecum that Xiong was present. But Mecum said “there was nothing FUSD could do to stop or prevent Mr. Xiong from being present and speaking,” the lawsuit says.

The school board allowed Xiong to speak in both English and Hmong for three minutes during public comment. In his comments, Xiong spoke about Vue being a Fresno Unified employee and falsely accused her of starring in a pornographic video, the lawsuit says. Xiong even brought copies of the video for school board members.

The board meeting was videotaped and broadcast on local television and made available online through the Fresno Unified website.

After Xiong finished his comments, Quintana pulled Vue into a room. In front of Quintana and others, Vue broke down into tears. Quintana then apologized and said she did not see Xiong or notice when he went up to speak, the lawsuit says.

When Vue went back out into the lobby, she saw Hanson, but he “acted as if he had no idea who Xiong was and why he was there,” the lawsuit says. Vue, who was in tears, informed Hanson that Her, Mecum and Quintana were all aware of the situation. Hanson offered no apology, the lawsuit says.

The school district had no obligation to censor Xiong, and in fact, had no right to do so.

Lawyers for Fresno Unified School District

Fresno Unified spokesman Miguel Arias said Monday afternoon: “Ms. Vue was not subjected to any sexual harassment at her workplace or by any FUSD employee. As to comments by members of the public at Board meetings, FUSD is committed to open meetings as required by the Brown Act and honoring people’s free speech rights guaranteed under state and federal law.”

In court papers, the district’s lawyers argue that this was not a situation where an employee received a threat of physical harm. They also noted that Vue voluntarily attended the open meeting, and the alleged defamatory statements by Xiong were the same statements he made through media outlets, which she claims also injured her.

“The school district had no obligation to censor Xiong, and in fact, had no right to do so,” the lawyers said.

But Vue said the school board president frequently interrupts or cuts off members of the public while speaking when they became rude and offensive.

Vue says she also has witnessed members of the public being escorted out of school board meetings by security and/or law enforcement. In addition, the lawsuit says, the school board president tells the public before every session that disorderly and inappropriate conduct will not be tolerated.

In his Jan. 12 ruling, Simpson ruled that a jury should hear Vue’s civil complaint because “the undisputed facts appear to show that defendants were on notice as to Mr. Xiong’s statements regarding plaintiff, knew he intended to speak them in a public forum and did nothing to prevent this from occurring.”

Though the school district disputes whether it has the authority to take action, school officials “knew or had reason to know of the prior false statements and Mr. Xiong’s intention to repeat those false statements, and refused to take any action to prevent the action from occurring,” Simpson’s ruling says.

This story was updated to reflect a new starting date for the trial.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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