HONOLULU (CN) - The University of Hawaii did not violate a student's First Amendment rights by deciding he was unfit to become a teacher because he said "child predation should be legal," the Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday.
Mark Oyama earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the California Institute of Technology and a Master's Degree in physics from the University of Hawaii prior to enrolling in the Manoa campus' post-baccalaureate education program.
But Oyama made "statements concerning sexual relationships between adults and children were of central concern to the faculty," according to the three-judge Ninth Circuit panel which upheld an April 2013 district court grant of summary judgment in favor of the university after Oyama sued.
Oyama argued that his statements were protected by the First Amendment because they were made "in an academic, intellectual setting."
In a class assignment Oyama wrote, "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." He went on to write that "real life child predation should be legal" as long as it's consensual and that the age of consent should be "either 0, or whatever age a child is when puberty begins."
When professors discussed the disconcerting statements with Oyama, he said it would be "fine for a 12-year-old student to have consensual sex with a teacher, but that he would obey the law and report the teacher," according to the panel's 46-page opinion.
Oyama also made other comments that troubled his professors, claiming that "nine of 10 special education students he encountered were 'fakers,' and that he was not convinced that many disabilities are actual disabilities," Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote.
Attorney Eric Seitz described his client as a "socially awkward nerd" and that "however misguided his opinions were, to me, it is outrageous that a student can be essentially kicked out of his educational program for expressions of opinions in a classroom discussion."
He added, "The ruling is troubling because it allows the university to censor someone's opinions that aren't acted upon."
But Wardlaw said the trial court's finding in the university's favor "implicates the constitutional balance between two prerogatives of a public university's professional certification program: promoting open discourse among its students and limiting certification to candidates suitable for entry into a particular profession."
She added, "We conclude that the university did not violate Oyama's First Amendment rights because its decision 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 panel also ruled that the university provided "adequate procedural protections in denying Oyama's application," and did not violate his right to due process.
In fact, the panel noted that during the university grievance process - of which Oyama availed himself - the grievance committee acknowledged that the university had committed "two violations" of its own procedures in failing to "timely notify Oyama of the standards for advancement" in the program and to "provide Oyama with his field-experience evaluations."
After acknowledging these violations, the teaching program dean offered to reimburse Oyama for certain expenses and allow him to withdraw from certain courses if he released his claims related to teaching program participation. Oyama declined the offer and filed free speech and due process complaint against the university.
Both the district court and the Ninth Circuit panel also acknowledged the university errors but decided they had no basis regarding both claims.
"We hold that the University of Hawaii's decision to deny Oyama's student-teaching application did not offend the First Amendment because it related directly to defined and established professional standards, was narrowly tailored to serve the university's foundational mission of evaluating Oyama's suitability for teaching, and reflected reasonable professional judgment," Wardlaw wrote.
"The university's decision was, by necessity, prospective in nature. Oyama stood in the doorway of the teaching profession; he was not at liberty to step inside and break the rules. But that does not mean that the university was obligated to invite him in. Rather, the university could look to what Oyama said as an indication of what he would do once certified."
The University of Hawaii at Manoa is Hawaii's only nationally accredited institution that recommends students for certification as secondary school teachers.
A university representative declined to comment on the ruling.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.