'Hot for Teacher' Essay Lands Student in Trouble
February 16, 2012
by Ashton Marra
A Michigan college student is crying foul after he was kicked off campus for writing a sexually suggestive journal entry about his teacher for a class assignment.
Joseph Corlett, a 56-year-old countertop refinisher who is pursuing a degree in writing and rhetoric at Oakland University, wrote the essay as a part of a creative writing journal assignment in a writing course.
In his essay, which he said was inspired by the 1984 Van Halen hit "Hot for Teacher," he wrote about his first impressions of his professor, Pamela Mitzelfeld, describing her as "tall, blonde, stacked, smart, articulate."
Corlett said he was under the impression that there were no restrictions on what he could write about in his journal.
"The real issue is the First Amendment," Corlett said. "It's about academic freedom and about due process. These are the real issues of the case, and the sooner we can get past the titillation of it and see those issues, the better."
Mitzelfeld and Oakland University declined requests for comment from ABC News. But the university has made its position known in its disciplinary action against Corlett.
In January, after a campus hearing, the university found Corlett guilty of intimidation. Another charge, for sexual harassment, was dropped. Corlett was suspended for three semesters, banned from stepping foot on campus and required to seek out psychological counseling before he could be eligible to reenroll, according to documentation provided to ABC News by Corlett.
Corlett has appealed the punishment; the university's response is pending.
It all started in September, when Corlett began taking an advanced English class from Mitzelfeld, who had assigned the students to keep a journal, referred to as a "daybook," Corlett said. The daybooks were a place for students to collect unsensored thoughts, which could then be used to create more polished essays, according to Corlett.
Mitzelfeld collected Corlett's journal in November and that's when his problems began. Up until then, he said, he had been earning A's on his writing assignments, many of which had sexual undertones, he said, so he thought he was "on the right track" and was not concerned about turning in the daybook journal.
But after Mitzelfeld reviewed Corlett's daybook, she initiated a university review of his conduct, which led to a meeting with a dean, and instructions to stay away from Mitzelfeld's class for awhile, until she could cool down, Cortlett said. But when he eventually returned to class, he was escorted out of the room by university police, he said, and asked not to return pending a university judicial hearing.
Oakland University initially charged Corlett with sexual harassment and intimidation, both classified as "unlawful individual activities" in the school's student handbook.
Corlett, who lives in Lake Orion, is flummoxed by the turn of events. "I asked (Mitzelfeld) on multiple occasions if there were topical restrictions on the daybooks, and on every occasion -- often in front of other students -- she told me no," Corlett said.
After the university disciplined Corlett, he enlisted the help of a non-profit education foundation called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based non-profit that advocates for students and teachers. The Center helped him find Brian Vincent, a Michigan-based litigator, who is helping him challenge his suspension and the other disciplinary actions taken by Oakland University.
"I have no doubt in my mind that the university had no authority to boot him off campus," said Vincent. "His speech was completely protected, and the University of Oakland's actions at this point have been completely baseless and illegal."
University officials told ABC News they do not comment on student conduct matters.
Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center, a non-profit education-focused organization at Vanderbilt University, said that harassment and intimidation charges are often handled on a case-by-case basis rather than based broadly on law.
"Because the law on harassment comes from protection of person who is hearing the speech, it can be a complicated factor," Polcinski said.
"Just because something is offensive doesn't mean that it is a criminal act,'' Polcinski said. "I think the First Amendment protects a wide range of freedom of expression. We're free to express even repellant ideas, but what grade he received is an academic -- not a legal -- question."
If the disciplinary actions are not dropped in the appeal, Corlett plans to file a lawsuit against the university, Vincent said.
"He suffered damage to his reputation," said Vincent. "He wants to be made whole for his attorney fees and wants to be reinstated to the university so he can finish his education, which he has a Constitutional right to do."