* Former professor at Santa Rosa Junior College
* Died in 2004
Born in Ogden, Utah in 1955, Michael Ballou earned a bachelor’s degree from Weber State College and a master’s degree from Brigham Young University. From 1990-2004, he was an adjunct political-science instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) in Petaluma, California, where he taught a course titled “Introduction to U.S. Government.” Viewing the United States as an inherently aggressive, warlike nation, Ballou in 2003 (shortly after the U.S. invasion of Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq) said: “[W]e’ve been at war with someone someplace for the better part of a century. Our institutions are built around it. It’s going to take some time to change the face of those institutions and what informed people call their ‘raison d’etre.’”
In July of that year, Ballou sparked controversy when he gave his students an assignment that required them to compose an e-mail message using the words “Kill the President,” who at that time was Republican George W. Bush. While one of Ballou’s students informed a local member of Congress (Democrat Mike Thompson) about the assignment, the parents of another student alerted the FBI. Soon thereafter, the Secret Service opened an investigation and interrogated Ballou.
Ballou subsequently explained that his purpose in giving the assignment was to help his students understand the fear and paranoia which the federal government could cause many people to feel. “People need to actually feel the kind of baggage they’re carrying around with them,” he said. “We’re all carrying around a great deal of fear, we are just not aware of it.” Asked to clarify exactly what his students could learn from writing “Kill the President,” Ballou replied: “The exercise was [designed] … to bring out … not fear of Al Qaeda or Saddam. It’s fear of our own government and each other.… My class assignment brings out the fear each of us is already carrying around and then discusses how people or institutions capitalize on that baggage.… Do you think it’s because we’re whipping ourselves up into a state of frenzy? But you know, quite frankly, just try the experiment. Type in the words on a computer. Maybe even get your finger near the ‘send’ button and you will feel a near tangible wave of fear come over you.”
When asked if he knew that it was a federal offense for anyone to threaten the life of a U.S. president, Ballou answered: “Well, I don’t think that’s been settled yet. After all, I haven’t been charged with a crime…. 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.”
In defiance of his critics, Ballou averred that he was “not going to take any flak from the American people” vis-à-vis his controversial assignment because “at least 60% of [them] … don’t vote anyway. For them the President and the Presidency are already dead.” “Nor,” Ballou wrote, “am I going to take any flak from the Bush administration who already threatens violence against heads of state (which by the way is also technically illegal). If I go to jail over this, George W. should be my cell mate.… [M]aybe while he’s busy scapegoating the intelligence services and other secret services for his own blunders in the Middle East, he should reflect back on the hair-trigger performance of those same forces covering his back in such dangerous locations as bucolic Sonoma County [where Petaluma is located]. No Osama [bin Laden], no Saddam, no WMDs, but we can certainly find and scare the bejesus out of some political science students in northern California. Now don’t you all feel safe?”
On July 17, 2003, SRJC president Robert Agrella stated that “by any reasonable standard,” Ballou’s class assignment “jeopardizes students and is ridiculous.” “I am ashamed and embarrassed,” Agrella added, “that a member of the Santa Rosa Junior College faculty has exposed his students and the college to such ridicule, and express my profound regrets to everyone who shares this shame and disappointment.” While noting “a general outcry to fire the instructor,” Agrella said that college attorneys had already ruled out such an option.
Ballou died at his Guerneville, California home on November 6, 2004, at the age of 49.
Further Reading: “SRJC Teacher Found Dead” (The Press Democrat, 11-10-2004); “‘Kill the President’ E-mail Prompts Probe” (San Francisco Examiner, 7-10-2003); “Reply to Dr. Agrella” (by Michael Ballou, 2003); “Interview With Michael Ballou” (CNN, 7-11-2003).