Cuss fuss redux

A Macomb Community College professor suspended for cursing in class and related matters is back to square one after suffering a setback in federal court.

John Bonnell, an English professor for 32 years at MCC, filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the college after being suspended with pay indefinitely in February. Earlier this month, a federal judge refused to grant a preliminary injunction that would return Bonnell to the classroom.

Bonnell awaits a disciplinary hearing next week before college officials. That hearing was put on hold while the federal court considered Bonnell’s request for intervention.

The professor initially received a three-day suspension for his classroom use of words and phrases including "fuck," "blow job" and "tits on a nun." Such terms upset one of Bonnell’s female students, who complained in a November letter to college administrators that she found the comments "dehumanizing, degrading and sexually explicit."

Bonnell, who often teaches literature involving adult themes, argues that his language complied with the school’s profanity policy, which only forbids the use of "profanity" and "vulgarity" that is not "germane" to course content.

Bonnell’s second suspension is tied to issues stemming from the first layoff, leading him to coin a less-explicit phrase: "constitutional nullification." He says the phrase describes how the college first sacked him for cussing, then came back with other "charges" in what he sees as an attempt to blur the First Amendment issue.

MCC general counsel Hunter Wendt says so far Bonnell "isn’t being accused of anything." Wendt says the college is investigating whether Bonnell played a role in the low attendance of his course during his original three-day suspension and also whether Bonnell violated the complaining student’s privacy by releasing her written complaint to other students and the media. Bonnell contends he blotted out the student’s name and any course references before releasing copies of the letter. The student has since been featured on NBC’s "Today Show."

At issue is Bonnell’s classroom terminology including the time-worn phrase "as useless as tits on a nun," which Bonnell contends he mentioned in relation to a novel by Joyce Carol Oates about an erotically thwarted Roman Catholic nun. He says he used the phrase as an example of sexism in the Catholic Church.

Bonnell, is also being criticized for saying "blow job" during a classroom discussion he says veered from a fellatio reference in a James Joyce novel to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

Students who support Bonnell say his teaching is very effective, and point out that he begins each semester with a warning that he will be using language that some might find offensive.

Asked by whose professional standards Bonnell’s language would be judged, Wendt says "That would be the college and the people who teach there."

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