Bonnell v. Lorenzo

From February 1998 to October 2001
Macomb Community College (Public college or university)
Warren, MI, United States

Identity of Speakers

  • John Bonnell

    John Bonnell was a professor of English at Macomb Community College.

Additional Information

  • Incident Nature:
  • Incident Political Orientation:
  • Incident Responses:
    University investigation issuing in sanctions
    Faculty sanctioned
  • Incident Status:
  • Did not involve Speech Codes


John Bonnell was a professor of English at Macomb Community College. In February 1998, a student complained about Bonnell’s use of obscene and graphic language in the classroom. Bonnell received a warning that his use of sexual language might be grounds for a sexual harassment complaint against him. In November 1998, a female student enrolled in Bonnell’s class filed a written sexual harassment complaint, claiming that Bonnell’s classroom language constituted sexual harassment. In response, Bonnell made copies of the complaint and distributed the copies to students in all of his classes and to college faculty members, with a satirical essay attached entitled “An Apology: Yes, Virginia, There is a Sanity Clause.” Bonnell was subsequently suspended with pay and benefits pending an investigation into his actions, including disseminating the student complaint to local news media.

On March 10, 1999, Bonnell filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against various college administrators, alleging § 1983 and § 1985 violations of his First, Fourteenth, and Sixth Amendment rights. Bonnell sought a preliminary injunction requesting his immediate reinstatement to his teaching position at the college. After the court remanded the matter to the college for an administrative hearing, Bonnell filed a renewed emergency motion for preliminary injunction.

On August 27, 1999, the district court issues its memorandum opinion and order granting Bonnell’s renewed motion for a preliminary injunction. Bonnell thereafter returned to his teaching position. The defendants appealed the decision, and on March 1, 2001, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the districted court’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings, holding that the college’s interests in protecting the complainant’s confidentiality, disciplining Bonnell for allegedly retaliating against the complainant, and maintaining an atmosphere free of faculty disruption outweighed Bonnell’s academic freedom and free speech interests. A subsequent writ of certiorari United States Supreme Court was denied in October 2001. Bonnell eventually returned to teaching at Macomb and died in 2014.