Real-Life Satire at Southern Connecticut State University
April 26, 2005
Our illustrious program associate, Alexis Zoberg, who handles our case intake, has prepared an excellent summary of another crazy case of repression on college campuses. This reminds me of a favorite Mark Twain quote: “It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”
Edward Bolles is a student at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). Bolles, who is pursuing his master’s degree in creative writing, wrote a satirical poem for his poetry class titled “Professor White.” In it, the protagonist, Juan Diego, becomes sexually involved with the fictional professor’s college-age daughter (named Snow White). Professor White fears that the relationship will corrupt the “purity” of Juan’s Hispanic heritage, and after being accused of racism toward Mexicans, Juan is sent back to his farm in Mexico, his racial and cultural identity thus “saved.”
Bolles, whose political views frequently clashed with those of his professor, wrote the fictional piece as a commentary on globalization, and admits he was poking fun at the “anti-globalist ideology” of his professor, Kelly Ritter. Ritter was so “disturbed” by the poem, which she felt was about her and her daughter (who is three years old), that she called the police after reading it. Bolles arrived at the next meeting of class only to be escorted out of the building by SCSU officials. He was told he could not return to the class until a psychiatrist had evaluated him, allegedly because of the threat of sexual assault that he (vis-à-vis his satirical poem) posed.
While Bolles, who is 36 years old, married, and a father of two, was not required to undergo the evaluation, he was informed that his only option was to complete the class as part of an independent study with a different professor. Bolles refused, and after nearly two weeks of inaction by the university, decided to take matters into his own hands. Wearing a pink shirt that read “Save Professor White,” Bolles staged a one-man protest by handing out flyers, T-shirts, buttons and pens bearing the same words. Forty minutes into the protest, the director of his graduate program approached him, telling him that his actions could jeopardize his academic future. Undeterred, Bolles continued, telling puzzled students that “Professor White” was a poem he wrote.
Less than an hour after his protest, Bolles received a hand-delivered letter from the administration:
As a result of the investigation, I wish to inform you that no formal disciplinary charges will be filed on behalf of the university and you are permitted to return to your English 202, Section 1 course, Introduction to Poetry Writing.
Edward Bolles returns to class tomorrow. The Associated Press wrote about his story, and the article was picked up by the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Guardian, among others. Although FIRE often intervenes in cases such as this one, this time the student was able to protect his rights on his own. Students are often not aware that they can challenge a professor’s viewpoints, or that they can fight back when they are punished unjustly. In this case, a student risked his academic career in order to show the university that its actions were not only illegal, but also ridiculous. One student, armed only with information and a sense of humor, was able to prevent a university from violating its students’ basic rights. For more information on freedom of speech and expression, see our Guide to Free Speech on Campus.