DETROIT, March 13, 2012—Oakland University in Michigan has denied the appeal of a student who was barred from campus, suspended for three semesters, and required to undergo “sensitivity” counseling for authoring a class assignment in which he stated that he found his instructors attractive. While the assignment specifically permitted students to write creatively about any topic, the university bizarrely classified his “Hot for Teacher” essay as “unlawful.” Joseph Corlett came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“Oakland University made up its own definition of the ‘law’ in order to punish a student for his creative writing,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “The special irony here is that Joseph asked several times if it was really okay to write anything, and several times he was told it was. Now, because he took that instruction seriously, he is being kicked out of school and facing mandatory counseling. Having taken many, many writing classes myself, I know that essays often have racy topics, from drugs, to sex, to violence, but apparently a riff on a Van Halen song that seemed to be everywhere when I was a kid is a capital offense.”
Corlett’s ordeal began in early November 2011 when he submitted his writing journal to his Advanced Critical Writing professor. Her course materials describe this “daybook” as “a place for a writer to try out ideas and record impressions and observations,” and state that it should contain “freewriting/brainstorming” and “creative entries.” According to Corlett, he verified with his professor that he could write about any topic. In other assignments in the course, he had written on sexual topics and received high grades.
One entry in Corlett’s journal, titled “Hot for Teacher,” quotes the 1984 Van Halen song of the same name and tells a story of being worried about being distracted in class by attractive professors. A separate September 23 entry states that his professor is like Ginger from the television series Gilligan’s Island, while another professor is like the character Mary Ann.
On November 29, his professor announced to some of her colleagues, “Either Mr[.] Corlett leaves campus or I do.” On December 7, Dean of Students and Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Glenn McIntosh and Vice President for Student Affairs & Enrollment Management Mary Beth Snyder pressured Corlett to withdraw from his winter semester classes.
FIRE wrote Oakland University President Gary D. Russi on December 16, explaining that Corlett’s creative writing was fully protected under the First Amendment, which is binding on public universities such as Oakland University. FIRE explained that Corlett’s “germane, class-related expression” was protected speech.
Oakland University Assistant General Counsel Boyd C. Farnam replied on December 23, stating that Corlett would have to face a disciplinary hearing. On January 3, 2012, Corlett was charged with “unlawful individual activities” on the basis of the writing journal alone. Although Farnam had promised that Corlett could present “whatever evidence” he deemed “appropriate and relevant,” Corlett was prevented from presenting evidence explaining his free speech rights at his disciplinary hearing on January 19.
Corlett was found guilty and sanctioned with a three-semester suspension, a ban from campus with a threat of arrest for criminal trespass if he came back, probation, and “counseling” for “sensitivity issues” before he can ever take classes again.
Corlett appealed with the help of attorney Brian Vincent, a member of FIRE’s Legal Network. His appeal was evaluated by Snyder, who refused to recuse herself. Snyder denied his appeal on March 5, asserting that Oakland was not bound by “technical legal definitions and standards” when punishing Corlett.
FIRE asked President Russi to intervene on March 8, reminding him of Oakland University’s legal and moral obligation to respect First Amendment rights on campus, but in a letter yesterday Russi refused to do so, claiming that Oakland never branded Corlett a criminal despite finding him guilty of “unlawful individual activities” for writing the essay.
“Oakland University is claiming that it can punish students with suspension and mandatory counseling for doing their assignments as their professors asked, and that the First Amendment offers no recourse in the classroom,” said FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel. “On top of that, Oakland can label your writing ‘unlawful’ without having to worry about what the law actually says. All students at Oakland should be worried about being the next target.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Adam Kissel, Vice President of Programs, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Gary D. Russi, President, Oakland University: 248-370-3500; email@example.com
Henry Baskin, Chair, Oakland University Board of Trustees: 248-646-3300; HBaskin@baskinlawfirm.com