The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

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


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.