DETROIT, February 10, 2012—Oakland University near Detroit has suspended a student for three semesters, barred him from campus, and demanded he undergo "sensitivity" counseling because he wrote in a class assignment that he found his instructors attractive. While the course specifically permitted students to write creatively about any topic, the university bizarrely chose to classify his writing as "unlawful individual activities." Joseph Corlett came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
"This is a wild overreaction to a student's creative writing," said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "The university has essentially issued a straitjacket to every writing student to protect the delicate sensibilities of faculty and staff."
Corlett's ordeal began when Corlett submitted his writing journal to his Advanced Critical Writing professor in early November 2011. Her course materials describe a student journal 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."
One entry in Corlett's journal, titled "Hot for Teacher," 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.
In an email on November 29, his professor announced to some of her colleagues, "Either Mr[.] Corlett leaves campus or I do." On December 7, Corlett met with Dean of Students and Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs Glenn McIntosh and with Vice President for Student Affairs & Enrollment Management Mary Beth Snyder, who 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 "it is simply impossible to conclude that Corlett's germane, class-related expression" constituted unprotected speech.
Oakland University Assistant General Counsel Boyd C. Farnam replied on December 23, claiming that Corlett "is not being prosecuted," but on January 3, 2012, Assistant Dean of Students Karen Lloyd sent Corlett a letter charging him with "unlawful individual activities" on the basis of the writing journal alone. Corlett attended a disciplinary hearing on January 19.
In a letter to Corlett dated January 20 but emailed on January 26, McIntosh wrote that Corlett had been found "guilty" and was being sanctioned with suspension for three semesters through Fall 2012; no ability to transfer credits during the suspension; persona non grata status with a warning that he would be arrested for criminal trespass if he entered the campus; and disciplinary probation for the rest of his college career. If Corlett chooses to enroll for Winter 2013 courses, he also must show evidence of "counseling ... to work on sensitivity issues."
Corlett appealed yesterday with the help of attorney Brian Vincent, a member of FIRE's Legal Network. Corlett is barred from campus but remains enrolled in online classes in ethics and religion pending the outcome of his appeal. His wife has supported him throughout the ordeal.
"Oakland University is treating Corlett like a student with a mental disability who needs counseling for insensitivity," said FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel. "I can hardly imagine what kind of counseling Oakland would have required for Quentin Tarantino, Vladimir Nabokov, or Stephen King."
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.
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