We have discussed professors who have been investigated or sanctioned for using the “n-word” in classes or tests in Duquesne, John Marshall, Augsberg, Chicago, DePaul, Princeton, Kansas, and other schools. According to The Hoya, we can now add Georgetown after Professor Michele Swers read the words of a Ku Klux Klan leader in her class “US Political Systems” and “did not censor the racist epithet.” What is noteworthy in this case is that the complaint against Professor Swers suggests that she would have protection of freedom of speech and academic freedom if she were black, but that no white person would use the word for any purpose in any context or read. In a letter to Swers, the students insist that “We are sticking to the first change, ”but then calling for the professors’ speech in class to be checked, including reading from material on racism. You cite the Georgetown University Faculty’s Handbook Prohibiting Harassment and define these terms as “verbal abuse or ridicule, including blurring, surnames, and stereotypes; offensive jokes and comments; threatening, intimidating or hostile acts and displaying or distributing offensive material, writings, graffiti or pictures. “However, this was a class on ‘US Political Systems’ where the sheet was part of the underlying historical material and students were warned in advance that the class would cover sensitive material.
Removing such terms and images in a class dealing with racism can significantly alter and undermine a professor’s treatment of the subject. It is analogous to the Yale University Press decision when it published Jytte Klausen’s “The Cartoons That Shook the World” (about the cartoons that sparked riots and killed over 200 people in protests around the world). Yale removed the 12 cartoons from the book so as not to offend the Muslims. So you could read the book but not see the cartoons for yourself. In addition, the students suggest that a black professor could read from the historical documents of the same class, but not a non-black professor.
Ironically, it was a class discussion about free speech and racism. Swers quoted Clarence Brandenburg of Brandenburg v. Ohio (a 1969 case that we can discuss a lot about in relation to “violent speech”). The court struck down a law in Ohio that bans public speaking and is believed to promote illegal behavior. It supported the KKK’s right to speak despite being a hateful organization.
The letter insists that white professors cannot read such passages. The students insist “This word was not only written on the foil without censorship, but also pronounced aloud with a hard ‘r’. They also complain that Swers described Brandenburg as “not a terribly personable figure” instead of making the condemnation more energetic and demonstrative of the historical figure behind the Supreme Court’s decision. Students also request evidence that they will be re-educated on racism and the acceptance that white professors are prohibited from using the word:
We ask you to take action in the form of:
a clear, sincere, and direct apology to everyone in the class;
a careful review of the presentation and lecture material for possible distortions;
a demonstrated understanding of the history of the N word and why it is inappropriate for a non-black person to say it any Context, including an educational context.
The letter was submitted to Mirka Sosa at the Office for Institutional Diversity, Justice and Positive Action on Campus. Sosa insisted that Swers be “fully accountable”, stressing that the problem is that she is white and that white professors “shouldn’t say that word at all”.
As many on this blog won’t surprise, my natural standard remains on the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom that Swers protect when reading historical documents. Therefore, I do not agree that the use of such offensive terms is prohibited in “any context” regardless of the intent behind such references. Finally, the effort to prevent professors from reading from such a document based on their own race is deeply troubling and raises their own concerns about the use of racial classifications.