Salicious Statements In The Classroom: Do Student’s Rights Extend to Racy Essays About their Teachers?

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.

The Revamped Stolen Valor Act

By Jillian Mallon

On Jan. 3, 2006, the 109th Congress of the United States enacted the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 (S. 1998 (109th): Stolen Valor Act of 2005). This act was designed to protect  the reputation and significance of medals or decorations awarded by the president or the Armed Forces of the United States such as the Medal of Honor, the Navy cross, the Purple Heart, and so forth. The act dictated that if a person claimed that he or she won a medal that he or she did not win, that person would have to pay a fine and serve up to six months or one year in jail.

Not one person was convicted under the Stolen Valor act until Xavier Alvarez in 2007. Alvarez was an elected water district board member in California who made claims at a public meeting that he was a retired U.S. Marine who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The FBI obtained a taped recording of the meeting and charged Alvarez with two counts of violation of the Stolen Valor Act (United States Courts , “U.S. v. Alvarez: Stolen Valor or Stolen Freedom of Speech?”, 2013). Alvarez’s lawyer claimed that the Stolen Valor Act was invalid under the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The case was eventually appealed by the government to the Supreme Court which heard oral arguments concerning the case on February 22, 2012.

The Supreme Court decided that the Stolen Valor Act was unconstitutional. The court opinion stated that content-based regulations of the First Amendment right to free speech have only been permitted in cases of defamation, libel, slander and fraud, among other rare occurrences. Though these cases usually involve misleading the public with false speech, the Supreme Court argued that in the case of United States v. Alvarez there was only false speech involved and no “legally cognizable harm”. The opinion went on to explain:

“Even when considering some instances of defamation or fraud, the court has instructed that falsity alone may not suffice to bring the speech outside the First Amendment; the statement must be a knowing and reckless falsehood” (United States v. Alvarez, 2012 WL 2427808 [June 28, 2012][No. 11-210]).

Misleading the public with false information is in fact a knowing and reckless falsehood. Xavier Alvarez knew that he hadn’t won the Congressional Medal of Honor when he announced it at a public meeting. The First Amendment should not protect untrue speech even if it exhibits no harmful threat. Lying about having a medal may not be such a serious crime that it can be justly punished with three years of probation and a $5,000 fine the way it was in Alvarez’s case. However, lying should not be protected by the First Amendment because it is knowingly false speech.

This year, 2013, a new version of the Stolen Valor Act is being drafted. NevadaCongressman Joe Heck has said that this Stolen Valor Act of 2013 will be more effectivebecause it will punish those who lie about receiving medals or rewards in order to benefitfrom these false claims instead of just the lie itself (Congressman Joe Heck Press Releases, “Heck Introduces Stolen Valor Act to Protect Integrity of Military Awards”,January 15, 2013). This act should be in place to protect the public from false statements. The new act will limits the punishment that a person who violates the act recieves. While the old act recommends an unspecified amount of fines and imprisonment, the new actsuggests a fine or no more than a year in prison (The American Legion, “SenateIntroduces Stolen Valor Act of 2013”, February 5, 2013).

Sources:

http://heck.house.gov/press-release/heck-introduces-stolen-valor-act-protect-integrity-military-awards

http://heck.house.gov/sites/heck.house.gov/files/Stolen%20Valor%20Act%20of%202013.pdf

http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/109/s1998/text

http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/11-210d4e9.pdf

http://www.uscourts.gov/EducationalResources/ClassroomActivities/FirstAmendment/first-amendment-stolen-valor/facts-case-summary.aspx

http://www.legion.org/legislative/213744/senate-introduces-stolen-valor-act-2013