The goal for me is just to get people to read my writing, and the newspapers definitely helped with that," says Max Karson, a University of Colorado at Boulder student who's recently received plenty of coverage thanks to The Yeti, a controversy-courting newsletter he publishes. "As far as any personal pleasure in making the administration look stupid, that wasn't high on my list of priorities. But it was amusing."
Simple, too. All Karson had to do was write a satirical essay about "the myth of the female orgasm" and then wait for people offended by it to complain to CU officials, which they did. University reps took it from there, inadvertently fueling a hullabaloo that played like a smaller-scale version of numerous public-relations blunders committed at CU in recent years. The events that followed were perfectly timed to handcuff the school's PR department, boiling to the surface during interim spokesman Barrie Hartman's last week on the job. Hartman's successor, Bronson Hilliard, eventually got things back under control, but not before Karson had parlayed the tiff into the sort of spotlight time that's sure to frost his detractors. "More people are hearing about The Yeti," he says. "And that's good."
Karson -- who'll host a public reading of The Yeti at 6 p.m. on November 29 at CU's Cristol Chemistry building, room 142 -- is an inveterate self-promoter with a taste for hyperbole. Yet some of his claims don't stand up to scrutiny. For instance, he maintained that a petition demanding his expulsion was being circulated by individuals associated with the Women's Resource Center at CU. But after hearing that Hilliard had investigated this assertion and found no evidence of its truth, he said he'd heard about the petition secondhand and admitted it might be nothing more than "a rumor." Nevertheless, there's enough of a paper trail to suggest that many of the entertaining tales he spins are grounded in reality.
An Amherst, Massachusetts, native, Karson started writing horror stories as a youngster, and his tradition of provocative prose continued at Amherst Regional High School, where he created and personally distributed a newsletter he called The Crux. The publication, whose entire run can be accessed online at www.greentara-redlayla.com/CruxIntro.html, hit its stride with a salvo inspired by the January 2002 resignation of principal Stephen Myers, who was alleged to have made sexually provocative comments to a male student. (By coincidence, Myers previously served as principal at P.S.1 charter school in Denver, and after he stepped down in Amherst, two former P.S.1 teachers interviewed in Westword accused him of inappropriate behavior here, too.) Karson's take on the incident was predictably off-kilter. "My response to Mr. Myers' controversial hobby of molesting children?" he asked in print. "I'm going to break up with him, and had I known he was a child molester, I never would have gone out with him in the first place."
Myers's administrative successors didn't get the joke, suspending Karson for a week. But this sentence was stricken from his permanent record thanks to lawyers affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union of Western Massachusetts, who, according to Karson, learned about the matter from a friend of his. Karson says he was threatened with suspension three more times for subsequent Cruxes -- one in which he insisted he was "gayer than Big Bird" for his friend Matt, another that sang the praises of masturbation, and a third whose concluding phrase was "Fuck you, Mom." But with the ACLU's help, he escaped all but one day's worth of further punishment, and in October 2002, the Amherst Regional School Committee made its student free-expression policy less restrictive in direct response to the Crux affair.
Upon graduation, Karson moved to Colorado, where his father lives, and enrolled at Colorado State University. He lasted just a semester before heading back east again. Two years later, he returned to the state to attend CU, starting classes and The Yeti at roughly the same time. He handed out several hundred copies of each edition at the University Memorial Center, and he provides a slew of laudatory e-mails as evidence that more people liked his purposefully impolite offerings than didn't. "It's about 80 percent positive," he swears.
Even so, the remaining 20 percent of folks were mighty unhappy -- especially with issue three. Karson says he was trying to needle insensitive men who care only about their pleasure and want women to be nothing more than mute, submissive sex objects. Problem was, he took the chauvinism to ham-handed extremes, writing in the first person that the clitoris is functionless ("like an appendix"), breasts have no nerves and can therefore be squeezed as hard as possible, and the sex act should proceed without lubrication, "so they can really feel it."
Although Karson meant this as a comic description of unfathomably bad sex, some readers read it as misogyny and rape, and complaints soon reached the CU Board of Regents, as well as Ron Stump, the vice chancellor of student affairs. Stump could have reacted to these gripes by first sympathizing with those who were upset and then reminding them about a little thing called the First Amendment. But no: He decided to call Karson into his office, and at the October 19 meeting that ensued, he scolded the student over the Yeti's content. That's all the provocation Karson needed to interest the Colorado Daily in writing about the situation -- and Stump provided Karson with a bonus when he told Daily reporter Paula Pant that he was "reviewing whether or not The Yeti is protected free speech." This remark, published on November 5, seized the attention of scribes at the Boulder Daily Camera, the Daily's sister paper, which ran a piece two days later in which Stump compounded his gaffe. "We're looking into it from a legal perspective," he told Brittany Anas, who wrote that officials wanted to figure out if Karson "is breaking any 'student code of conduct' rules with his newsletter."
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These phrases screamed out to Boulder ACLU head Judd Golden, who sent a letter to Stump expressing concern that "the University is taking action that unreasonably chills and represses free speech." The Rocky Mountain News used this concern as the cornerstone of a November 10 article that made CU look clueless, and while Stump tried to limit the damage by writing to Golden that "the newsletter distributed by Mr. Karson violates no law or University policy," he couldn't stop it entirely. On November 13, the Rocky published an editorial with the vivid headline "Busybody CU Bigwig Should Know Better," and the next day, Karson starred in a lengthy segment on Peter Boyles's KHOW radio program.
By then, Hilliard had taken Hartman's place and quickly established his voice as the only one at CU to talk about Karson. This wasn't pleasant news for yours truly; rather than agreeing to interview requests from Westword, Stump and Barbara Kulton, the director of the Women's Resource Center, who'd slagged The Yeti in the Daily, had Hilliard speak for them. Hilliard tried his best to make Stump's statements in the Daily and the Camera seem less moronic than they actually were, emphasizing that since the veep doesn't have a legal background, he wanted to be certain that Karson's words couldn't be interpreted in court as an exhortation to rape, which wouldn't have qualified as protected speech. The problem with that? Anyone in Stump's position should know that satire is protected, and even if he somehow missed that day in school, there were more than two weeks between his meeting with Karson and the first article about The Yeti when he could have asked a CU attorney to compensate for his ignorance. Instead, he attempted to look politically correct in the press, and everything blew up in his face.
Because Stump has gone to ground, there's no telling what he thinks of "Ron Stump," a hip-hop song Karson recorded as part of an album that can be accessed on his website, www.yetipaper.com. Musically, the tune is horrible, and Karson's vocals are on par with William Hung's. Lyrically, however, one couplet perfectly encapsulates this entire episode: "Hang on, Ron, I wanna make a confession/I like the attention -- now I got an erection."
And CU gave him a hand.