Q&A: Teacher Faces Down Lawsuit

Jim Corbett, a history teacher in Orange County, Calif., may have won the fight of his life earlier this year when a federal appeals court ruled in his favor on accusations that he violated a student’s constitutional rights.

Corbett had been sued by a student who said the teacher’s anti-Christian, politically provocative classroom comments were a First Amendment violation; the student had secretly taped the comments and later played them on Fox News.

In his first trial, a judge ruled against most of the accused violations but let one stand, possibly setting a precedent that would encourage other politically motivated lawsuits against teachers.

Earlier this year, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling, siding with Corbett and most likely ending a four-year ordeal that brought him stress, hate mail and job uncertainties. Corbett is a former college football player who is known for running a tough AP class; over the years, his views have incensed some students and families while endearing him to others.

 Q: In essence, what did the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rule in your case?

A: Basically, the Court decided that I had qualified immunity so they never dealt with the gravity of the issues at all. They just said no reasonable person could have anticipated that what I said would have been actionable and as a government actor I had complete immunity…the lower court ruling was overturned and does not stand.

Q: So is it completely over?

A: Chad’s lawyers say they’re going to appeal to the 9th circuit for an en banc review and failing that, they’ll ask the U.S. Supreme Court to look at it. The probability of the (en banc) review in their favor and the Supreme Court picking that up… most legal people I’ve talked to have said it’s a very unlikely possibility.

Q: Where does the experience leave you then?

A:  I have some ambivalence. On that one hand, the legal case is largely over. On the other hand, I suppose that, like Chad, I’m a little frustrated that the issues were never really dealt with. It’s taken me a long time to come around and understand really what was going on here. The original ruling by the court in the Lemon test [the legal criteria applied] basically said that a government actor can neither be favorable to religion nor can he be hostile to religion — either a given religion or the very concept of religion. That sounds so completely reasonable that I think most people never question that at all. In fact, I think they’re going to have to revisit Lemon sooner or later, and the problem is, there is no legal definition of hostility. We need to understand that there are religious people of all religions who are very extreme in their views. I would certainly put Chad and his family and the Advocates [for Faith and Freedom, Chad’s counsel] in that category.

Q: So could the notion of hostility to religion still be used against teachers?

A: Let me put it this way, Martin Luther said reason is the greatest enemy God has. Chad and other fundamentalists of all religions, I think they sincerely believe that application of rationality to their religious views is unconstitutionally hostile. So there’s the problem with the Lemon test.

They’re going to sue again, I’m sure. Not Chad per se but the Advocates. Frankly I think the Advocates knew they were going to lose this case from the beginning. I think they used this case for fundraising. For them, as far as I’m concerned, it’s even worse because they don’t have to anticipate winning, all they have to do is have a case that resonates with Christian extremists and then ask for donations to fight for Jesus. I just find that offensive, and expensive.

Q: Back to you… how did the case change your life?

A: It held me up as a sort of villain to a substantial segment of Americans. We had hundreds of letters, including one who said he was bringing a rope. Some went to my home, most went to school. My school email is easy to find. I certainly got well over 100 letters and many were vituperative in ways that were almost hilarious. After spending time in Beirut during the civil war I’m not that easy to intimidate. I wrote my dissertation in Belfast, I think I know a little something about religious conflict.

Q: How difficult was it?

A: At some levels and I’ve had people who know me say this to me…at some level I’m glad they sued me and not anyone else. A lot of teachers said they didn’t think they could have simply fought. They felt that the stress of it, especially when the Advocates were offering to drop the suit if I did this, that or the other thing, a lot of my colleagues said, “if given that opportunity I’d have done that.” I just felt very strongly that you can’t give them a win. That would only open the door to these kinds of lawsuits.

Q: What did they offer you in exchange for dropping the suit?

A: Not directly to me but with my lawyer, they were willing to consider it if I would apologize to Chad and agree to change the way I taught. At one point they wanted me to take sensitivity lessons. My reaction to any of those things was always the same. I didn’t start this fight, you did. You wanted a fight, you got one.

Q: Do you have hostility to religious people?

A: That was absurd from the beginning. Some of the letters I got from ex students brought tears to my eyes. I can cite one, a student who said, “I remember coming to your class…I remember how upset you made me but I had to admit that as time went on but you made me a better Christian.” Second page, “signed Reverend [NAME] First Presbyterian Church, Buffalo.” I got several of those. I had written letters of recommendation for kids to go to Biola University [a Christian college], convinced kids to go to Wheaton, which is known as the Christian Harvard. I’m not only neutral, I don’t care. It’s what the kids want, that’s what you do as a teacher. If a kid says I want to do this, you try and help them become all that they can become….

Q: Why are teachers targeted?

A: Because religious extremists object to teachers who talk about scientific truths. They’re upset and now half the teachers in the country back away from teaching evolution, when it is the unquestionable, single unifying theory of biology. I’m sorry, but we can’t get into a situation in which scientific reality is determined by the religious beliefs of some minority of Americans or even a majority. This isn’t something you vote on. They have ideas that sound rational — let’s just teach the controversy. No, let’s not. I had a parent come up after class, upset that I wasn’t being fair and balanced. And I’ll admit that I was not happy with that parent, and I said what do you mean, what am I supposed to do when I teach the Holocaust, give time to the side that it didn’t happen? There’s the side with data and the side that you just want to be true.

Q: How many more years left teaching?

A: I’ve got a 16-y old son and I’m going to be around a while. I like it. Chad is the only formal complaint I’ve had in 23 years.

Q: Do any of your students ask about the case?

A: Usually it’s because some kid has googled my named. Others, there are a lot of sibling whose older brothers and sisters were around when the case was going around, and it’s been in the press. They want to know… and I tell them.

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