Can a Professor be Punished for Reading a Slur Aloud in Class?

Colleges and universities offer a wide array of courses, many of them touching on controversial issues such as racism and sexism. Professors who teach these courses necessarily have to teach material that can be challenging and often painful to read. Until recently, this was generally considered a necessary part of the educational process, but now many professors are finding themselves in trouble when students are offended by these materials.

For example, David Bleich is an English professor at the University of Rochester whose scholarly work focuses on the use of language in social contexts. This past fall, a debate arose in his “Gender & Anger” class over whether it was appropriate to enunciate the “n-word” when reading from a short story by a Black author that included the word. Shortly after that discussion, the Black legal scholar Randall Kennedy published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Is it Ever OK to Enunciate a Slur in the Classroom?” Because Kennedy’s essay addressed the very issue that had arisen in Professor Bleich’s class, Bleich read the essay aloud to his class. As a result, the university removed him from the classroom and told him he could not return to teaching unless he submitted to random monitoring of his classes and submitted all of his course materials to the administration for prior review.

Advocates for free speech and academic freedom have expressed outrage over Rochester’s treatment of Professor Bleich. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) both wrote to the University of Rochester in defense of Professor Bleich, and Randall Kennedy himself stated that Rochester’s actions were “profoundly disturbing” and that “compelled silence or bowdlerization is antithetical to the academic, intellectual, and artistic freedom essential to higher education.”

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. As FIRE’s blog about Professor Bleich’s case recounts, professors around the country have faced similar punishment in recent years for their pedagogical use of materials containing racial slurs.

So what are a professor’s rights in this situation? At public universities, professors’ pedagogical choices in the classroom are generally protected by the First Amendment as well as by principles of academic freedom. At private universities, where the First Amendment does not apply, it is a matter of the university’s own policies: generally speaking, private universities are contractually obligated by the promises they make to students and faculty in policy documents like student and faculty handbooks. The University of Rochester’s faculty handbook, for example, states that “This University is committed in word and deed to the protection of unfettered inquiry and the academic freedom of its faculty.” Their treatment of Professor Bleich is clearly at odds with this commitment.

If you are a faculty member who finds yourself in this situation, the attorneys at Allen Harris can help. We are committed to holding universities accountable for violations of faculty members’ free speech and academic freedom rights, and we will fight for you.