Shut up and get out
Profanity complaint leads to lecturer’s suspension
Published: Friday, November 12, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, November 17, 2010 11:11
Veteran Hawai`i Community College lecturer Daniel Petersen has been placed on suspension, stemming from his use of profanity in the classroom. The suspension possibly violates his first amendment rights and academic freedom.
According to a settlement agreement between Petersen and the University of Hawai`i, to return after suspension he "agrees that he will refrain from using profanity and other inappropriate language, including but not limited to, the words "shit" and "goddamn" while teaching his courses."
A local doctor and past board member of Hilo Missionary Church, Timothy Jahraus, sent a letter to Dean of Student Services, Barbara Arthurs on Aug. 25, 2009. He complained about his 18-year-old daughter's experience in her first day of class in Introduction to Logic, Philosophy 110.
A copy of the letter was personally addressed to Petersen's home in Kea`au. He posted the letter on his website and urged his students to "decide whether or not this is an example of critical thinking, and whether or not you agree with the assessment of my teaching methods in the class, that have been made by this person."
Petersen also posted the sender's name and address, "should any students want to discuss this with him." The website was eventually censored by the community college, and the letter was removed.
In an internal memo from Interim Chancellor Noreen Yamane to Petersen, she cited his posting of the letter on his website as a possible violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Repeatedly through the memo she cites that his actions may be in violation of university, state, and federal policies. However, no judicial ruling has been noted.
The letter states, "From what my daughter describes of the language and attitude of the instructor, I'm surprised that such an individual would be retained by the college in a teaching capacity. I'm told that not only was his language profane but students were told that they could leave if they found the language offensive. Needless to say, my daughter has withdrawn from the class."
Multiple calls to Dr. Jahraus for questioning were not returned.
Petersen contends that his slight use of profanity is to prove a point about the philosophy of religion, in relation to fanatics like Osama bin Laden. This first-day lecture is a ritual he had been practicing for over 21 years, without ever receiving a formal complaint.
"I've never sworn at a student. I've never used profane language speciously or in any way that's vulgar. I don't even understand why this guy complained. He complained on something his daughter told him," said Petersen.
Devin Kelley, one of Petersen's current students and former UHHSA senator, wrote in the lecturer's defense, "In regards to foul language, I've heard him curse once on the first day of instruction to make a point and that was the last time I have ever heard him do it."
Multiple calls to Chancellor Yamane for questioning were not returned.
Petersen noted, "I tell all of my students if you don't like the way I look, the way I talk, the way I smell or anything about me—there is the door. You can leave. You don't have to take my class. You can always take Math 100."
Philosophy 110 is not a required class, but may be substituted for Math 100.
Student Devin Kelley wants the community college to rethink their decision.
"He is hands-down one of the best teachers UH and HawCC has and is always there for his students twenty-four-seven. This is college and not grade school; we are young adults and anyone who can't handle real-world conversation that may include foul language is not ready for higher education, let alone life. Dan is the man and handsome or not, he is a great guy who is being treated unfairly."
Starting in the spring semester, Petersen will be placed on suspension from HawCC, but not from UH Hilo. He will be paid for half a semester, although he will not be teaching any community college classes.
Internal memos, the settlement agreement, video footage, and audio excerpts from the Petersen interview will be available at kekalahea.com.