By David Zisser
On March 16th, 2013, Joseph Corlett, a former student at Oakland University (a public university in suburban Detroit) filed a claim in the U.S District Court in Detroit. The suit stems from the suspension of Mr. Corlett. While enrolled in an English course (English 380: Advanced Critical Writing), Corlett was tasked with writing an essay “about anything”. Corlett chose to submit a racy piece entitled “Hot For Teacher,” in which he elaborated on the sexual desires he had towards the courses instructor, Pamela Mitzfield.
The university deemed the essay to be “intimidating behavior”, and acted swiftly. Corlett was suspended for a year, with re enrollment only being an option after he completed a course in sensitivity training. Corlett’s suit alleges that he was merely completing a homework assignment, and that his First Amendment rights were violated. Additionally, he is claiming to have suffered from anguish and humiliation due to being forced to leave the school. Corlett is suing the university for $2.2 million.
Previous cases of sexual harassment in universities exist that are not entirely dissimilar to the suit being brought to the courts by Corlett, albeit in the previous cases the circumstances were reversed, and it was the teacher, not the student contesting consequences of alleged harassment.
Specifically relevant is the case of Silva v. University of New Hampshire. In it, Donald Silva, a tenured faculty member used sexually suggestive language in the process of teaching his class. Particularly, he stated “Belly dancing is like jell-o on a place with a vibrator under the plate.” Later eight of his students would come forward and complain of sexual harassment. Silva was placed on leave without pay following the complaints. After losing an appeal to the university, Silva filed a claim in federal court. The courts sided with Silva, stating “The court finds that Silva’s classroom statements advanced his valid educational objective of conveying certain principles related to the subject matter of his course.”
On the flip side, in Rubin v. Ikenberry Louis Rubin, a tenured professor at the University of Illinois notorious for disclosing his sexual past and telling various dirty jokes in the classroom, lost his suit against the university after he was terminated for the aforementioned speech. The court asserted that his comments were “exceedingly remote from the First Amendment’s concern with protecting socially valuable expression.”
Another relevant facet of Corlett’s allegation is the University of Oakland’s policy on sexual harassment. In it, sexually explicit language or writing (as well as lewd pictures or notes) are included as examples as unacceptable conduct. This language as you can see is quite vague, and the case the aforementioned issue of Silva v. University of New Hampshire deals with a matter similar to this. Specifically, the courts ruled that the university’s sexual harassment policy “as applied to Silva’s classroom speech is not reasonably related to the legitimate pedagogical purpose of providing a congenial academic environment because it employs an impermissibly subjective standard that fails to take into account the nation’s interest in academic freedom.”
Ultimately, the court will be forced to determine the value of Corlett’s speech. Sexually explicit speech in a college environment has been both protected when the speech was ruled to have value, and stripped of its protection when it was frivolous and without merit. Additionally, they will be faced with the challenge of determining whether or not the Oakland University policy on sexual harassment is constitutional, and whether or not the policy was properly applied to Corlett’s essay. If it can be proved that the speech has educational value since it was in the context of an assignment, it is likely that the courts will rule in favor of Corlett.