Having been barred from Moraine Valley Community College for using an "unacceptable word" while playing the role of a pimp in an improvisational sketch class, Joshua Zale is suing his school, claiming his free speech and due process rights were violated.
Remarkably, given the way he alleges he was treated, Zale, of Oak Lawn, Illinois, is asking a judge to clear the way for him to register again for classes at Moraine Valley, outside of Chicago. And for monetary damages.
No one, including Zale in the lawsuit he filed on his own behalf in Cook County Circuit Court, has disclosed what the unacceptable word was. But Zale uttered it when asked by his instructor, Craig Rosen, to assume the role of a pimp asking for money from another student, playing the role of a sex worker.
Rosen harshly reprimanded Zale, who on April 20 met privately with Rosen to ask why he had been chastised for using a word in keeping with the role Rosen asked him to play, according to the suit. Zale then met with Rosen and Lisa Kelsay, an assistant dean, who later accused Zale of violating Title IX and school conduct policies for mistreating Kelsay "as a woman."
School administrators demanded Zale write a "what I learned from this incident" essay, including reflection on the college's core values, as punishment, or they would put a hold on his student account and prevent him from registering for classes.
Not only did Zale refuse to write the infantilizing essay, but he refused to attend a subsequent disciplinary hearing, contending the school refused to allow him to confront his accusers. Administrators responded by blocking his registration, claiming he violated the student conduct code on "physical/verbal abuse or harassment."
Neither the professor nor the administrators mentioned in the lawsuit would comment on the case, and a spokesperson said the college does not comment on pending litigation.
Perhaps the lawsuit will force the Moraine Valley administration to ask what it has learned from the incident. If instructors assign pimp-sex worker improv roleplays, should they be surprised if the bounds of what is normally socially acceptable in a classroom are stretched?
The response to "unacceptable" speech shouldn't be to stifle it, but to engage with it and discern what is unacceptable to say in an improv setting. This was an improv scene where Zale was supposed to be thinking on his feet for the sake of humor and theatrics. After all, what would be rewarded in that sort of performance if not realism?
Zale is rightly claiming the school violated his procedural due process rights. His punishment was "arbitrary and capricious," the charges levied against him were "wholly conclusory, containing no factual statements whatsoever," and he was not informed of these charges with adequate notice.
To make matters worse, the proposed hearing had no real semblance of impartiality, because it would have been conducted by one of the administrators who initially charged Zale with misconduct. No wonder Zale chose to opt out.
This case shows just how far administrators are willing to go to suppress student speech. If improv-humor-gone-awry results in arbitrary punishments, what will administrators try to squelch next? And what good is an education if you can't creatively challenge the world around you––and with it, the bounds of socially acceptable language?