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Victory for Free Speech at Bellevue Community College: College Drops Punishment of Professor for Politically Incorrect Math Question

FIRE’s long-fought case at Bellevue Community College (BCC) has finally drawn to a close. Last week, BCC announced that it would no longer pursue a week-long unpaid suspension of Professor Peter Ratener, who composed a math exam problem that featured a woman named Condoleezza dropping a watermelon off the roof of a federal building. Ratener wrote the problem in 2004, but came under intense scrutiny after the exam question was made public in March, 2006. Ratener responded to public outcry that he was a racist by issuing an apology for his gaffe, explaining that he attempted to use humor to relieve the tension of test-takers, and that in years past he’d used the example of the comedian Gallagher dropping a watermelon. Because students no longer recognize the name Gallagher, Ratener explained, in 2004 he had substituted the name Condoleezza, not realizing the possible racial implications.

Despite the apology, BCC pursued disciplinary action against Ratener, attempting to suspend him for a week without pay. FIRE opposed BCC’s punishment by writing to BCC President Jean Floten in August, 2006, urging her to drop the proposed punishment against a professor with a spotless record throughout 26 years of service to BCC. FIRE also issued press release in September, stressing that BCC—a public institution—could not punish a professor merely because some interpreted his expression as offensive.

BCC held fast to its decision to punish Ratener, and even received the distinction of being named a “leader in diversity” by the organization Minority Access, Inc. As I wrote at the time, “one can’t help but think that BCC’s decision to hang Ratener out to dry—and to sacrifice justice, forgiveness, and fundamental fairness—contributed to its distinction as a leader in diversity.”

FIRE’s efforts to preserve free speech and fundamental fairness at BCC proved successful last week, when BCC finally came to the decision that it would not suspend Ratener. Our congratulations go out to Professor Ratener.

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