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Interview With Michael Ballou

Aired July 11, 2003 - 19:45   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: A political science professor says he wanted his students to understand the fear and paranoia the government inspires in some people, so he told them to write the words "Kill the president" in an e-mail, but, he says, told them not to send it. Still, one of them did send it to a local member of Congress. Word got to the Secret Service, and they opened an investigation.
And Santa Rosa Junior College Professor Michael Ballou joins us now to explain what in the world he was thinking.

Michael, thanks for being with us. What was the purpose of this assignment?

MICHAEL BALLOU, POLITICAL SCIENCE PROFESSOR, SANTA ROSA JUNIOR COLLEGE: Well, first of all, I've taught for 25 years, and I've used this particular exercise for about seven years. Since 9/11 and the passage of the PATRIOT Act, I've used it every single semester, and I've had great success with it in the past. (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

COOPER: Success in what sense? What's the purpose of it?

BALLOU: Well, the purpose is that, you know, it's very difficult to bring these things home, and people need to actually feel the kind of baggage they're carrying around with them. We're all carrying around a great deal of fear, we just are not aware of it.

So this exercise brings it out in a real way. Then it's -- once it's out in the open, I can talk about who benefits from that, and then what to do about it.

COOPER: Oh, I don't understand. What, I mean, I majored in political science. I never took a course where I had to write a e- mail saying, "Kill the president," or even talk about fearing of the government. I don't understand. I still don't quite get it.


COOPER: How does typing out "Kill the president" translate into the course work?

BALLOU: Well, I suppose it's like a 12-step program, where you have someone stand up and say, Hi, my name is Shirley, and I'm an alcoholic. It actually is important that a person say the words in order to get the feeling. You won't feel that way -- for some people, they'll feel the wave of fear just getting near the keyboard. For others, they actually need to type the words. I'm not advocating they send anything. And there are no e-mail address was given to the students for them to send.

But it is, you know, it is an experiential (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

COOPER: Do you still think, do you still think...


COOPER: ... it's a good idea? I mean, after all this? You've been investigated by the Secret Service, you know, you're -- I guess your job is probably in jeopardy. Do you still hold -- stand by thinking this is a good idea?

BALLOU: Actually I do, and let me explain why. I don't stand by this particular exercise. In fact, that right now I think this -- what I'm experiencing now with the media coverage, as well as the Secret Service, now becomes my new object lesson, so I think that's what I'll use from here on out.

However, up until now, it has served my purposes well and the service purposes of my course well in getting this layer of fear out in the open so that people can deal with it.

COOPER: Were you aware that it is a federal offense to threaten the life of the president?

BALLOU: Well, I don't think that's been settled yet. After all, I haven't been charged with a crime, and neither has the student who has actually sent the e-mail. I guess the legal question here is, does the president or does the presidency own the words "Kill the president"? I mean, if it's "Kill a president," then maybe it's the word "the" that we're talking about here.

COOPER: Do you get why the Secret Service, though, would be concerned about this.

BALLOU: Yes, I can see why they would show up. But it seems to me this could have been handled behind the scenes. After all, it only involved three people at the most. What blew it out of proportion was involving my entire class, as well as my other class, and then bringing in the media. It was my school that chose to call in the media, not me.

COOPER: I -- well, I just want -- we asked the college you -- the junior college that you teach at to give us a statement. Vice president of Santa Rosa Junior College Doug Garrison gave us this statement. Quote, "The university doesn't condone what Professor Ballou asked of his students. The issue for us is that whether Professor Ballou intended to or not, he put his students in a potential position of jeopardy. We're looking into actions on our own part."

What do you expect is going to happen to you now? Think you'll be teaching there next semester? BALLOU: Well, I have to tell you, initially Doug Garrison gave me support under the label academic freedom. Once this became serious, and the media got involved, the school started distancing itself. Once it got back to the main campus, the politics of the situation changed completely.

Dr. Agrella (ph), who's the president of our school, he (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- he apparently chose to involve the media. So, you know, I guess the ball is back in their court.

COOPER: All right.

BALLOU: Am I going to continue to teach there? I'm -- obviously, I'm available. It's up to them.

COOPER: All right. Well, I guess if you wanted to teach your students something about fear, I guess having the Secret Service talk to them probably did that as well as just about as anything.

Michael Ballou, appreciate you joining us. Thanks.

BALLOU: You're welcome.


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