The Blog

Pants on Fire!

An independent report has found Orange Coast College professor Ken Hearlson innocent. So why are the Muslim students who lied to get him in trouble still in school?

11:01 PM, Dec 13, 2001 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

EIGHTY-TWO DAYS after being suspended from teaching, Kenneth W. Hearlson has been vindicated. Sort of.

You'll remember that on September 18, Hearlson, a professor at Orange Coast College, taught his Introduction to Government class the way he always does. The next day, four Muslim students from his class complained to OCC administrators that Hearlson had called them "terrorists," "Nazis," and "murderers." One claimed Hearlson had pointed at him and said, "You drove two planes into the World Trade Center. You were the cause of what happened September 11." The day after that, Hearlson was placed--no questions asked--on administrative leave, and barred from campus. The charges were lies, and from the very beginning, there were tapes of the class which proved that nothing the Muslim students alleged had happened.

On Tuesday night, the college finished its investigation of the incident and exonerated Hearlson. A report compiled by Geraldine Jaffe, an independent investigator from the Orange County Department of Education, concluded that "most of the allegations made by the Muslim students against Ken Hearlson are unsubstantiated."

A panel consisting of college president Margaret A. Gratton, vice president of instruction Robert Dees, district chancellor William Vega, and vice chancellor of human resources John Renley decided to let Hearlson keep his job and return to teaching next semester.

And that's the end of the good news for the professor. At the close of the meeting with Hearlson, President Gratton handed him a letter which will be placed in his personnel file. In a Los Angeles Times article the next day, Hearlson complained that the letter was a reprimand. School officials at first declined to reveal the contents of the letter, but eventually said that it was merely "a conclusionary letter" that in no way reprimanded Hearlson or proscribed what he can say in the classroom in the future.

But a party familiar with the case who has seen the letter says that any claim that the letter doesn't proscribe Hearlson's future speech in the classroom is "positively false."

In an odd twist, the OCC administration seems almost offended that Hearlson was proven innocent. A press release from the school announces that Hearlson is returning to teaching, details the charges that were made against him, and notes that a report on the incident was filed, but never once mentions its conclusions. When questioned about whether or not the report means that Hearlson is innocent, college spokesman Jim Carnett says coyly, "You can draw your own conclusions. . . . I'm going to let the report speak for itself."

Thor Halvorssen, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the group that has spearheaded the public defense of Hearlson, says, "This is what you call backpedaling in the face of public opinion. What you've got is a report that says their professor is innocent and the college can't bring themselves to say it out loud."

And if it looks strange that OCC is backing away from Hearlson, it's even odder that the college is embracing the four Muslim students who filed the fraudulent claims. Before the administrators met with Hearlson on Tuesday, they sat down with the Muslim students and Ra'id Faraj, the PR director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. After the meeting, Faraj said that the students felt "pretty good" about the outcome of the Hearlson case.

According to the OCC Academic Honesty Policy, students "are expected to refrain from all acts of academic dishonesty." The four Muslim students who falsely accused Hearlson violated not only that policy, but also at least six provisions of the school's Student Code of Conduct, including: abusive behavior, disruption of the educational process, disruptive behavior, harassment, hateful behavior, and misrepresentation. According to OCC policy, a student violating any one of these regulations "may be expelled, placed on probation, or given a lesser sanction."

What punishment awaits them? When asked, OCC spokesman Carnett says, "It was confidential and it is illegal for me to talk about disciplinary matters." It sounds dark, but Renley, the vice chancellor of human resources, says, "As far as I know, they're not going to do anything to them." When asked if there would be any non-administrative sanctions, Renley says, "Are they going to go through a student conduct hearing? I don't know, but my guess is no."

Back in November, after the transcripts of the class surfaced and it became a matter of public record that the Muslim students were lying, one of Hearlson's accusers, Mooath Saidi, was confronted by a reporter from the New York Times. "If some of the allegations I made were not maybe right, if my memory was shady, this is not the first time anybody brought anything against this teacher. . . . [Hearlson] has a history, and he obviously hasn't learned and he needs to be taught a lesson."

One of the written complaints by the students against Hearlson for his "absurd, careless, prejudice, stereotypical, and very racist acts" dramatically concluded: "I feel due to his false, and incriminating accusations against us that . . . safety on this campus is no longer as assuring as it once was."

Professor Hearlson should use that line himself.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.