On Friday, student Joseph Corlett filed a federal lawsuit against administrators of Oakland University, near Detroit, 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. The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, alleges that university officials violated Corlett’s First Amendment rights by finding him guilty of "unlawful individual activities" solely on the basis of the journal entries. Corlett was suspended for three semesters, banned from campus, and required to undergo "counseling" for "sensitivity issues." Corlett was punished despite having verified with his professor that he could write about any topic and having previously received high grades for writing concerning sexual topics.
The Associated Press’ Ed White covered the lawsuit’s filing in a story published over the weekend, and Torch readers will likely remember the remarkable facts behind Corlett’s punishment. Here’s the sequence of events, as detailed in our March 2012 press release on Corlett’s case:
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’s complaint asks for $2.2 million in compensatory damages, punitive damages, four credits for the Advanced Critical Writing course, a clean disciplinary record, declaratory judgments that Corlett’s rights to free speech and due process were violated, and preliminary and permanent injunctions barring Oakland from enforcing its "Unlawful Individual Activities" policy.
We’ll keep you posted on the lawsuit’s progress here on The Torch.