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The University of Hawaii did not violate the constitution when it denied a student teaching position to a candidate who said that "the age of consent should be zero" and had no problems with "child predation."
That denial meant that secondary education candidate Mark Oyama could not become a teacher in Hawaii, but it did not violate his free speech or due process rights, the Ninth Circuit ruled on Wednesday.
Let's Think Twice About This Student Teaching
Oyama was a candidate for a secondary education certification at the University of Hawaii. To teach more than half-time in Hawaii, educators need a teaching license such as the university's certification. The University of Hawaii's program requires a semester of student teaching. Without that experience, candidates cannot obtain certification.
Oyama successfully completed his coursework for the certification program, but when it came to time in the classroom, there were several red flags. When Oyama took part in a "field experience practicum" in a middle school, several other teachers contacted the university to "express their concerns about Oyama's suitability," according to the Ninth Circuit. Those concerns were largely based on his comments about adult-child sexual relationships, which Oyama had little problem with.
Oyama's questionable comments weren't confined to middle school, either. In one class, he produced a written reflection on the dangers of students online that included the following:
Personally, I think that online child predation should be legal, and find it ridiculous that one could be arrested for comments they make on the Internet. I even think that real life child predation should be legal, provided that the child is consentual [sic]. Basically from my point of view, the age of consent should be either 0, or whatever age a child is when puberty begins.
Given these comments -- as well as Oyama's statements that disabled students were most likely "fakers" and should not be included in the classroom environment -- the University denied Oyama admission to its student teaching program, essentially cutting off his chances of becoming a teacher. The University explained that the denial was based on "a number of factors," including "the views you have expressed" regarding adult-child sexual relationships and disabled students.
Not Just a Student Not Yet an Employee
After losing an administrative appeal, Oyama sued, alleging First Amendment and due process violations. Oyama's claimed that the University's actions violated his rights as both a student and potential government employee. The Ninth Circuit rejected both approaches.
Under the student speech doctrine does not extend to the university setting, the Ninth explained. "The key rationales for restricting students' speech are to ensure that students 'are not exposed to material that may be inappropriate for their level of maturity,' Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote. Those concerns do not extend to the university, where "student maturity" is not an issue. Recognizing the importance of free debate in a university setting, the court declined to apply the student speech doctrine to Oyama's case.
Further, the Ninth Circuit rejected the public employee speech doctrine as well. "The first and most basic problem is that Oyama was not a government employee," the court explained. He is simply an applicant to a program that could lead to government employment.
Free Speech in the Certification Context
Instead, the court examined Oyama's claims in the context of government certification programs. Noting that the doctrines underpinning such cases differ -- some invoke student speech, some public employees, some neither -- the court explained that "their substance echoes a common theme."
That theme: courts generally defer to certification decisions based on defined professional standards. That deference is weakest when certification decisions are based on "officials' personal disagreement with a student's views," the Ninth explained, surveying cases from its sister circuits.
Applying that test to Oyama's circumstances, the Ninth found that the University was justified in denying Oyama access to its student teaching program. That decision was "related directly to defined and established professional standards, was narrowly tailored to serve the university's core mission of evaluating Oyama's suitability for teaching, and reflected reasonable professional judgment," the court determined.