Seattle, September 13, 2006—Bellevue Community College (BCC) near Seattle has decided to suspend a professor for composing a math exam question that involved a person named “Condoleezza” dropping a watermelon from the top of a building—a question that originally featured the comedian “Gallagher.” After months of public outcry, BCC informed Professor Peter Ratener that he would be suspended for a week without pay for his “offensive” question. Ratener then contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“Given the reaction of the community and the college, one might think that Ratener was guilty of committing a serious crime, rather than writing an accidentally offensive math problem,” stated FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “Everyone involved has acknowledged that Ratener intended no offense, and Ratener even apologized for the question, so what exactly is BCC trying to prove by suspending him? This punishment is not only unfair and a violation of the First Amendment, but also totally unnecessary.”
In 2004, Ratener composed a question for a math exam that read in part, “Condoleezza holds a watermelon just over the edge of the roof of the 300-foot Federal Building, and tosses it up with a velocity of 20 feet per second.” Ratener states that he had planned to use the comedian “Gallagher” in the question. But realizing that many current students would be unfamiliar with the comedian, who was well-known for smashing watermelons on stage, he later substituted the more recognizable name “Condoleezza.” The exam with this question was administered to students in 2004 and elicited no complaints.
In March 2006, another professor distributed the exam featuring Ratener’s question to his class as a practice exam. This time, one student approached the math department chair to express that she was offended by the question. Within days, the math question had turned into a controversy and appeared on Seattle’s local KOMO-4 news, in The Seattle Times, and was soon picked up by media outlets from across the country and activists from across the political spectrum. The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, which is chaired by BCC Trustee Paul Chiles, even issued a press release branding Ratener’s exam question “another example of hate and bigotry” and calling for BCC to take action.
On April 15, BCC’s Board of Trustees held a special meeting to discuss how to react to Ratener’s question. The Board issued a public statement, available on the BCC website for months, which read, “We . . . are deeply offended by the conduct of a math instructor . . . and strongly condemn this offensive behavior,” calling it “a gross violation of BCC’s mission and core value of respect for diversity.” The Board then asked BCC President Jean Floten to take appropriate disciplinary action and “examine the curriculum and practices of all its departments.”
On April 19, Ratener himself issued a public apology, admitting that he had made a mistake but stating that the invocation of a negative racial stereotype was completely unintentional. Even BCC’s Executive Dean for Instructional Services Ron Leatherbarrow characterized the question’s offensiveness as “unintentional” in a letter to Ratener in early May. Leatherbarrow nonetheless stated that the question “interfered with the educational process” for the student who complained, “and, possibly, for others as well.” Concluding that Ratener had not met BCC’s standards “regarding choosing appropriate test materials and treating students with respect,” Leatherbarrow suspended Ratener for one week without pay. Ratener has filed a formal grievance through his union and currently awaits arbitration on this matter.
FIRE wrote to BCC’s president and Board of Trustees on August 28 to protest the fact that the college “has raced to vilify Ratener and punish him for what he admits was a mistake,” instead of giving Ratener—a 26-year veteran of BCC with a spotless record—the benefit of the doubt. On September 8, Washington State Assistant Attorney General Alan Smith responded to FIRE’s letter but refused to comment on the situation before the arbitration that is scheduled for January.
FIRE’s Lukianoff concluded, “Liberty on campus cannot and will not long survive if professors can be disciplined merely because some interpret their speech as offensive. While BCC and others are free to criticize Ratener for his choice of words, the answer to speech one dislikes is more speech, not official punishment.”