Free Speech

"Professor Exonerated for Quoting Iconic Black Writer at The New School"

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

The New School has cleared a professor of charges of racial discrimination for quoting literary icon James Baldwin during a classroom discussion. The university reversed course late Wednesday after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education intervened on behalf of professor academic freedom rights….

Sheck, a poet and novelist who is white, teaches a graduate course on "radical questioning" in writing. The course includes works by prominent African-American writers that examine racial discrimination. Sheck prefaces her course with a warning that active engagement with literature involves a sense of unease and unsettlement.

Early in the spring semester, Sheck assigned "The Creative Process," a 1962 essay in which Baldwin argues that Americans have "modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history" and must commit to "a long look backward whence we came and an unflinching assessment of the record." In her graduate seminar, classroom discussion involved the Baldwin statement, "I am not your nigger," which was made during an appearance as a guest on The Dick Cavett Show. Sheck noted how the title of an Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary based on Baldwin's writings, "I Am Not Your Negro," intentionally altered Baldwin's words. She asked her students what this change may reveal about Americans' ability to reckon with what Baldwin identified as "the darker forces of history."

Months later, Sheck was summoned to a mandatory meeting with The New School's director of labor relations due to "student complaints made under the University's discrimination policy." She was not provided with any details about her allegedly discriminatory conduct.

On Aug. 7, FIRE publicly called on The New School to stand by its laudable "legacy of academic freedom, tolerance, and free intellectual exchange" and drop its investigation. FIRE's letter noted that Sheck's use of the Baldwin quote did not violate the university's racial discrimination policy and was clearly protected by her academic freedom rights. Further, The New School's own policies make clear it will not punish speech protected by the First Amendment and basic tenets of academic freedom.

I'm glad reason and academic freedom—here, the freedom to choose to talk about historical facts without expurgation and bowdlerization—prevailed, though it's unfortunate that the "investigation" (which left the prospect of possible discipline for "discrimination" hanging over Sheck for 1½ months) even took place.

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  1. Hey, now…We cannot have professors spreading knowledge around willy-nilly…..

  2. So many problems would be solved if people simply had thicker skins, but it doesn’t help having politicians eager to scratch those thin skin itches, or a government which makes those politicians inevitable.

  3. FIRE is one of the “conservative” organizations that all liberals should support (financially and otherwise). I know I do. I do not agree with each and every one of its cases. But in the vast majority of the ones I’ve heard about; they’re on the side of the angels.

  4. The Aug. 14 letter doesn’t sound as if the matter is really quite resolved.

    Yes, they determined that she did not violate any policies, but it does talk about some sort of followup with her from the Provost’s office.

    That doesn’t sound good.

    1. “We will not retaliate against you for using your academic freedom. We will assess you only for the quality of your work.”

      “James Baldwin said ‘I’m not your nigger.'”

      “The quality of your work just went down.”

      /paraphrased from Dilbert

  5. Sheck prefaces her course with a warning that active engagement with literature involves a sense of unease and unsettlement.

    It’s sad even this needs to be done, and as legal defense at that, in the land of free speech.

    Anti-harassment has grown from interceding in vile behavior to an observer-based law activation for any slight that will, in the accurate words of George Will, cause a modern, self-actualized, independently capable woman to “collapse like an antebellum belle into a pile of crinoline with a case of the vapors.”

    It breeds such hysterics precisely because of its political power to control others through government, something simultaneously ridiculius and dangerous to freedom.

    1. Indeed, the controlling memeplex has adopted not just that, but the additional meme that to even bring this up is itself actional harrassment.

      For those keeping historical score, the modern quasi-religion of anti-harassment has adopted not just “my religion is right”, but “to question it means you are hellbound and should be put in stocks.”

    2. “It’s sad even this needs to be done, and as legal defense at that, in the land of free speech.”

      It’s much sadder that it was done and wasn’t sufficient.

  6. Inmates running the asylum rarely turns out well. Giving the students more voice sounds like a good idea, but that pendulum has swung way too far.

  7. From the description, the course seems worthless so who cares who teaches it.

    Neither do I care if the left eats its own.

    1. Ideally, nobody would teach it.

      Agreed, in that FIRE should hold its fire for more worthy causes.

      1. On the other hand, FIRE work here just enrages the SJW even more, eggs them on, dares them to do even worse. That’s always fun AND educational.

        1. “FIRE work here just enrages the SJW”

          That appears to be the motivation of academics who support FIRE.

          Carry on, clingers.

    2. Not sure what you’re going on there.

      Isn’t “questioning” one important function of writing? I mean, yeah, the phrase “radical questioning” is a bit jargony, but that doesn’t mean the subject is worthless.

      1. Apparently “radical questioning” now means challenging a government censorship regime that isn’t supposed to exist in the United States.

        Carry on, ma’am.

  8. Hey, New School is doing better than Emory. Are they still having their farcical free speech symposia?

    1. I’m bored of Emory.

      1. Funny, they’re so interested in you.

          1. At least the rest of us did. 🙂

    2. Sadly, no. The building in which the scheduled symposia were to occur was viciously defaced with a chalk legend of “MAGA”.

      Administrators, faculty and students collapsed like an antebellum belle into a pile of crinoline with a case of the vapors at the sight. Maintenance staff called to deal with the mass swooning and to remove the potent graffito were also effected, though in their case the symptom seemed more like convulsive laughter.

  9. Waiting for the good reverend to come along and explain to Ms. Sheck that she’s a bitter clinger who deserves to be replaced.

  10. ” FIRE’s letter noted that Sheck’s use of the Baldwin quote did not violate the university’s racial discrimination policy and was clearly protected by her academic freedom rights.”

    What, exactly, are “clearly protected academic freedom rights”?

    1. Maybe something like: “to debate the quality of a writer’s work using direct quotes from the writer himself.”
      (I know this might be a difficult argument for you to follow, given that you think “liberal fascist” is an oxymoron. But, here it is again in living color.
      Do you want to open your eyes? We will try to speak slowly and use short words, so you can follow along.

      1. So, you have nothing? Why bother to comment, then?

        1. Actually, the “to debate the quality of a writer’s work using direct quotes from the writer himself.” seems pretty responsish to me.

          The rest was well-aimed and apparently necessary invective. You might have targeted the missing parenthesis, but you di’nt.

          1. “Actually, the “to debate the quality of a writer’s work using direct quotes from the writer himself.” seems pretty responsish to me.”

            Really? If this is a definition of “clearly protected” academic freedom rights, by what mechanism is it protected clearly? Where and how do this academic freedom rights arise, and what are their limits?

            1. Really? If this is a definition of “clearly protected” academic freedom rights, by what mechanism is it protected clearly? Where and how do this academic freedom rights arise, and what are their limits?

              Why don’t you google and find out, if you really want to know?

              1. I’m not the one who made the claim, so it’s not my responsibility to research it.

  11. I can at least understand when authorities censor stuff based on whether they (the authorities) believe the speech in question was accurate.

    But there’s a strain of thought – especially in universities – that truth is no defense.

    It started when professors would be censored, regardless of accuracy, for statements which offended the college’s donors. I imagine that still goes on.

    But now they have to worry about whether the remark (no matter how accurate) offends penniless SJWs.

  12. Nipping at the heels of our great liberal/libertarian institutiona…Biola…Liberty University…Sunday school classes at East Lake Baptist Church…

  13. I wonder, who exactly is it that is making these complaints?

    1. “unleash the students . . .”

    2. We might best simulate the administrative mindset by viewing each of those complainants as a teat, offering up that sweet, frothy gummint money. (Their public statements regarding their charges are always deceptively high-minded.)

      1. I actually think a better simulation would be Comrade Napoleon, with the students as Jessie’s puppies.

  14. “I’m glad reason and academic freedom—here, the freedom to choose to talk about historical facts without expurgation and bowdlerization—prevailed…”

    hmmm. Is it just me, or… no, it must be just me.

  15. FFS

    Really the N word hysteria is just absurd

  16. Does anyone know the position of the Volokh Conspiracy Board Of Censors on use of the word that precipitated investigation of Professor Sheck’s conduct? Is it always welcome, always forbidden, or dependent upon the political viewpoint of the speaker?

  17. What questions did he mean when he said about “radical questioning ” in writing?

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