On Friday, February 10, 2012, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) launched a media campaign against Oakland University (Rochester, MI) and an instructor who filed a complaint against a student who used his assignment writing as a vehicle for sexual expression– about her. The 56 year old male student was found guilty of intimidation and suspended for three semesters after a university conduct hearing that examined both his behavior and his writing. According to sources, his writing was only one factor in the suspension; he also expressed a pattern of inapprorpiate behavior toward faculty, classmates, and the student newspaper staff. For initial coverage of the story by OU’s student newspaper, see Jordan Gonzalez’s “Suspended Student Disputes Disciplinary Action.”
The student, who posted his grievance on sites from atheist blogs to contractor websites and who has been making the media rounds (FOX, ABC), has labeled his suspension a free speech violation. Perhaps more depressing than FIRE’s defense that it is not illegal to be “creepy,” is how many media outlets have misrepresented the university’s response, the teacher’s assignment, and the student’s behavior. With the exception of Jezebel’s two article expose and Mitch Albom’s radio interview (when he asked two telling questions: Would it have been more honest to ask the teacher if he could write about her? Did you intend to set off a controversey), few off-campus journalists have sought to determine if there was more to the story than a so-called puritanical professor and a reactionary administration. In sum, most have presented the story as if a professor solicited unrestricted and raw observations from her students and then cried foul when she got them.
In reality, the assignment is tested, tried, and true, borrowed from Donald Murray, the writing teacher’s writing teacher. It asked for many specific things, such as reflections on assigned reading, all which were strikingly absent from the student’s submission. And the so-called liberal anti-gun faculty member? Well, her colleagues and students know her better as a dedicated teacher. One insider, mocking the caricature the media has sketched, describes her as “a moderate republication with a healthy sense of humor who you might just bump into at the local gun range.”
Before I retire to the hen house for the day, I’d like to overview several questions Just Another Clucking Hen’s guest bloggers will address over the next few days:
- Are the student’s sexual comments about his faculty member subject to free speech protections? What has the Supreme Court ruled in other public education cases?
- Is it true, as FIRE has claimed, that the instructor’s feelings are irrelevant to a legal finding of intimidation?
- Who is the student, and what does his digital footprint tell us about his intentions?
- What should responsible journalists do when confronted with one side of a story like this? What did Jezebel.com, for example, do that others didn’t?
- How have other universities responded to similar cases of what sociologists term contrapower sexual harassment/intimidation?
Until the Rooster Crows Again,