‘So, Are You SURE I Can Write Whatever I Want in This Assignment?’

By March 19, 2013

As Torch readers know, yesterday FIRE announced that Oakland University student Joseph Corlett had sued the college for $2.2 million and four academic credits for suspending him in the fall of 2011 after he authored two journal entries that described the attractiveness of his professor for an Advanced Critical Writing assignment. FIRE President Greg Lukianoff explained the situation in his recent book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, so we wanted to bring you an excerpt from the book that tells you more about the case and, more importantly, why you should care.

Stepping away from the heavy and politically charged world of social work and education schools, a bizarre case at Oakland University in Michigan highlights the dangers of being a bit too freewheeling with your creativity on campus. In the fall of 2011, Joseph Corlett was taking an Advanced Critical Writing class that included a "daybook" assignment in which students were encouraged to engage in "free writing/brainstorming" and to write "creative entries" in this "place for a writer to try out ideas and record impressions and observations." Corlett, at fifty-six, had returned to college after dropping out more than thirty-five years earlier. Thus, he was another nontraditional student; having spent the last three-plus decades working for a living, he was also not steeped in the cautious culture of the contemporary campus. 

Corlett had gotten high marks after writing on sexual themes in previous assignments for his critical writing course and had even won an honorable mention in a student essay contest a couple of years earlier. According to Corlett, after asking his professor three times if it was really okay to write anything he wanted, he penned an entry called "Hot for Teacher." For those of us who were kids during the golden age of Van Halen, it is almost impossible to hear those words together and not get the song or images of its wonderfully bizarre video stuck in your head. (If you do, by the way, I find that "The Girl from Ipanema" is good at pushing any other song out.) 

In the daybook, he riffed on the theme of "Hot for Teacher" and talked about being distracted by his attractive professors. The course’s instructor, Pamela Mitzelfield, played a role in some of the entries. In one, he wrote, "Kee-rist, I’ll never learn a thing. Tall, blond, stacked, skirt, heels, fingernails, smart, articulate, smile." In a separate September 23 entry he described her as being like Ginger from the television series Gilligan’s Island, while comparing another professor to Mary Ann. 

As someone who has taken literally dozens of writing classes (both creative and otherwise), I can attest that students love to write about racy topics—drugs, violence, but most of all, sex—and are often rewarded with high grades for doing so. I don’t dispute that Corlett’s entries could "creep out" the professor and cause her to regret emphasizing that it was really okay for him to write anything he wanted. It would’ve been perfectly appropriate for her to explain that she thought his take on the assignment was unacceptable. But that’s not what happened. 

Instead, the professor complained to the administration, stating in an email that "either Mr[.] Corlett leaves or I do." The university, apparently unable to convince itself that Corlett’s behavior was harassment, charged him with "unlawful individual activities" on the basis of the journal alone. On January 20, 2012, he was found guilty of this vaguely defined offense, barred from campus under penalty of criminal trespassing charges, suspended for three semesters, and made to undergo counseling for his "sensitivity issues" before ever taking a class at Oakland University again. FIRE intervened, bringing substantial media attention to his treatment. (Word of the case even made it to Portuguese, Croatian, and Indonesian Van Halen-related websites.) Corlett appealed with FIRE’s help, but on March 5, Oakland denied his appeal, stating that the public university was not bound by "technical legal definitions and standards." Oakland will likely get to see how their arguments stand up in court.

Schools: Oakland University Cases: Oakland University: Student Suspended over His Writing Journal