Free Speech

UCLA Poli Sci Department Condemns Lecturer for Reading MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail, Showing Video About Lynching

UCLA says complaints -- about the fact that both the excerpt read from King's letter and the video included the word "nigger" -- have "been shared with UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for review."

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The Free Beacon (Chrissy Clark) reports:

The University of California Los Angeles has launched an inquiry into a teacher for reading aloud Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" because the civil rights document includes the n-word.

In a department-wide email obtained exclusively by the Washington Free Beacon, UCLA political science chair Michael Chwe and two other department leaders condemned lecturer W. Ajax Peris's use of the racially incendiary word in a lecture he was delivering about the history of racism against African Americans. UCLA officials said the department referred Peris, an Air Force veteran, to the university's Discrimination Prevention Office (DPO) and urged students to come forward with complaints. The email also faulted the postdoctoral lecturer for showing a documentary to the class in which a lynching is described and not stopping the presentation when students complained.

"The lecturer also showed a portion of a documentary which included graphic images and descriptions of lynching, with a narrator who quoted the n-word in explaining the history of lynching. Many students expressed distress and anger regarding the lecture and the lecturer's response to their concerns during the lecture," said the letter, which was signed by Chwe, vice chair for graduate studies Lorrie Frasure, and vice chair for undergraduate studies Chris Tausanovitch. "We share students' concerns that the lecturer did not simply pause and reassess their teaching pedagogy to meet the students' needs."

In a video taken by a UCLA student, Peris, who is white, can be heard reading King's celebrated letter written in the aftermath of the civil rights leader's arrest for demonstrating against Jim Crow laws. The letter was read in tandem with his lecture on the history of racism against African Americans in the United States.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is quoted as saying that:

Peris's academic freedom, as a faculty member at a public institution bound by the First Amendment, includes the right to decide whether and how to confront or discuss difficult or offensive material, including historical readings that document our nation's centuries-long history of racism," Patton said. "Doing so does not amount to unlawful discrimination or harassment, and the law is abundantly clear that UCLA could not investigate or punish a professor for exercising his expressive or academic freedom."

The College Fix reports that UCLA hasn't responded, but of course if they do, I will post their answer.

For my posts on a similar controversy involving me, see here and here; for my post about why it would be illegal—even apart from the First Amendment—for a university to have different rules about what documents can be quoted by black faculty members and other faculty members, see here. My controversy differs from this one in that (1) there has been no comment from UCLA central administration, at least yet, as to my speech, and (2) I haven't apologized, because, as I explain in my posts, I think it's quite proper at a university, and especially at a law school, to accurately discuss the facts (whether of a historical incident, a precedent, a current controversy, or what have you). Indeed, I think it would be quite wrong for a university to demand expurgation and euphemism in such situations, whether in classes about law, history, political science, film, music, literature, or whatever else. (Think of how many films you couldn't show in a modern film class, if it's established that Peris should be punished for showing the lynching film.)

Certainly the legal profession (my own field) draws a sharp between using a word as an insult, which would be rightly condemned, and mentioning it as part of a quote or a discussion of the facts of the case. Literally over 10,000 court opinions (here's a free-to-access subset), over 10,000 briefs, and thousands of law review articles accurately quote "nigger" and other such words—and I can't see how in law school people should be barred from saying what appears routinely in court opinions written by leading Justices and judges of all races and all ideological views. But I think the same should be true more broadly of all disciplines in the university, which should be at least as committed to accurate discussion of the facts, however grim the facts can be, as are judges and lawyers.

UPDATE 6/7/20, 5:20 pm: Just to be precise, I've revised the title from "UCLA Investigating Poli Sci Professor for Reading MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail, Showing Video About Lynching" to "UCLA Poli Sci Department Condemns Lecturer for Reading MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail, Showing Video About Lynching" and added the subheading. It's possible that the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion isn't yet investigating this (or for that matter might not investigate it), so I think I should focus on the political science department's condemnation and referral to the Discrimination Prevention Office (both of which matter a tremendous amount for faculty members, of course, especially untenured lecturers).

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  1. I don’t understand.

    Over the last few weeks pretty much every TV outlet in the nation has shown portions of videos of two black men being killed. As a result thousands of people have marched to protest those events and others. A number of the protestors have been subjected to police violence and others have committed vandalism and arson. Some people have died. These events have been shown on multiple news outlets across the nation.

    There have been calls on social media for insurrection or uprisings and yet these administrators and students are too sensitive to confront the historical events underpinning these current events.

    How can they be prepared to deal with these real life situations?

    I continue to wonder if these academic issues are motivated by something other the sensitivities of the purported students. It seems an example of Syaers Law “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” By way of corollary, it adds: “That is why academic politics are so bitter.” Sayre is said to have usually stated his claim as “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low”, and that Sayre originated the quip by the early 1950s. Of course others have made similar statements including Woodrow Wilson

    1. “I don’t understand.”

      Read or re-read “Animal Farm.”

  2. Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion? Well now, that certainly can give one, a warm and fuzzy feeling.

  3. This Poly Sci guy better be good at his quantitative methods, because unless he goes into the private sector or public administration, he’s going to be doing nothing but adjuncting or filling a slot at a community college. That’s just how Poly Sci departments are, and Volokh, in making this case a blog entry, ensured that it’s going to be high enough profile to catch on the first few pages of any search engine results and on the web forever.

    1. Until the Revolution.

      1. The culture war has been settled. Your side got stomped. That’s the reason the Volokh Conspirators are so cranky.

  4. Brainwashed children drunk with their own power and cowardly pathetic adults abetting them. This won’t end well for Peris and I sincerely hope you avoid his likely fate. What next, having to take a knee and apologize for your white privilege? Begin each class by chanting “Black Lives Matters?”

    1. Chants? No, just something similar enough in order to play some Call of Duty:

      https://www.thegamer.com/call-of-duty-modern-warfare-black-lives-matter-message/

  5. Has anyone here ever seen the movie Pulp Fiction?

    You will never see more repetition of the n word than that.

    And nobody got upset about it. Why? The issue is intent. The word means something completely different depending on the person saying it and the context in which they said it.

  6. “This just in. Martin Luther King condemned for racism after using n-word in letter from Birmingham jail.”

  7. One assumes that Mr. Peris is white.

    1. “…Peris, who is white, can be heard reading King’s celebrated letter written in the aftermath…”

      1. And while in some cases that makes all the difference in the world (because, indeed, white people should try to the maximum extent possible to avoid throwing the word around), it shouldn’t make any difference here. Any professor should be able to quote Dr. King using the word in a class.

  8. UCLA
    Discrimination Prevention Office.
    Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
    political science department’s condemnation.
    All we need to know.

    It would be better for society, who abets this through taxes, to have the names of the whining students, in order to improve the employee pool.

    1. It would be better for society to abolish Political Science Departments.

  9. @ EUGENE VOLOKH wrote, “Certainly the legal profession (my own field) draws a sharp between using a word as an insult, which would be rightly condemned, and mentioning it as part of a quote or a discussion of the facts of the case.”

    I’ll ask the hard question: Could UCLA seek to discipline lecturer Peris had he used the word as an insult, and if so, under which provisions of the UC Faculty Code of Conduct, which limits the grounds under which faculty, including lecturers, can be disciplined? (Sorry for the inside baseball, but under APM-150, “Non-Senate faculty appointees [such as lecturers] are also subject to the standards set forth in the Faculty Code of Conduct.”)

  10. I just don’t get why he didn’t stop when people complained. Does he want to get fired? Does he just want to make a fuss?

    1. Some people just seem to relish use of that word.

      They tend to be people generally on the wrong side of history — disaffected culture war casualties.

      1. “Some people just seem to relish use of that word.”

        In this case, Martin Luther King.

      2. I think I have said this before, but if I were an academic I would go to great lengths to avoid saying the word, even quoting people. I imagine the only situation where I could see myself uttering the n-word to a group of people would be if it were the F. Lee Bailey situation- a court case where quoting the word was entirely essential to the case.

        But at the same time, I also don’t think it is “reveling in using the n-word” to use it in class where it is germane to matters of discussion. It’s a perfectly reasonable academic choice to take that word as you find it when studying race in America. Especially reasonable when analyzing the work of Dr. King.

        1. I personally would go to great lengths to avoid being an academic. What a contemptible profession, judging by the UCLA poli sci department and administration. Prof. Volokh should be ashamed to work there.

          1. But you get summers off.

            1. In the near future summers will be reserved for re-education camp.

    2. Leaf’s Chauffeur: My guess is that he thought it was important that, at a university, people honestly discuss even ugly facts, without euphemism or expurgation. Let me offer an analogy (imperfect but I hope helpful) — we moved this blog from the Washington Post in 2017, even though we were happy with the platform and the readers that it brought. There were a few reasons for it, but a big one was my insistence that I be able to quote words accurately; as I wrote at the time, I strongly believe in being able to “accurately and completely quote material from cases and controversies, including when the material contains vulgar words.”

      If (for instance) we’re talking about Cohen v. California (1971), the leading First Amendment case in which the Court upheld a man’s right to wear a jacket saying “Fuck the Draft,” we don’t want to have to say “F— the Draft.” (Some readers may recognize this as the use-mention distinction.)

      Such obscuring of the facts strikes me as untrue to our mission as academics and writers to report things as they are. True, in a sense it’s symbolic: People can usually understand what “s—” or “c—” means. But the flip side is that it’s hard for me to see what value such redaction adds. And the symbolism is important to me: I want our readers to understand that they’re getting the truth, not the truth edited down to protect some people’s sensibilities.

      What is true for vulgarities, I think, is likewise true for epithets. Perhaps Prof. Peris believed as strongly as I do in this, and believed that using a euphemism, or bleeping out the word from the video about lynching, would be a betrayal of what he thought should be the university’s commitment to this sort of accuracy — and would send a message to students that they are entitled to be shielded from unpleasant facts, a message that he thought inconsistent with the true mission of the university. (In law schools, I also think that such a message would be inconsistent with the established and sound norms of the legal profession.)

      1. The students have a right to know their instructor is not passive-aggressively insulting them.

        1. So, you figure there was no context at all for the reading and movie? Passive-aggressive? L o friggin L. What class was it again? “Gee whiz, we were studying MLK and, I think the Prof was insulting me by quoting MLK.” Those whiners don’t have the intellect to use an education. Kick ’em out.

        2. No, they don’t, actually. They have the right to sit down and shut up, or leave and quit the class.

  11. At the beginning of a class which covered Dante’s Divine Comedy, the teacher simply said “This lecture will offend some of you, and for that I’m sorry”. The lecture included some passages about a homosexual man in hell, and why homosexuality was considered a sin. As far as I know, there weren’t any complaints.

    Why can’t the teacher simply say at the beginning “I’m sorry if you are offended”? If a teacher is not sorry that someone is reasonably offended by the material, that seems like a lack of empathy required in a learning environment.

    1. In this case, there is very little that is reasonable about the offense being taken.

    2. Better approach:
      “This lecture will cover, and discuss, various concepts that some of you are not mature enough to handle. I suggest you go back to your dorm and pack, then go home and hide in the basement. Come back if you grow up.”

      1. But who will pay tuition and subsidize the admin?

  12. I guess the only safe way to teach history is to forget the n word, forget that slavery existed, forget that there are races or colors. Right?

    1. No, because there will always be the next invented offense. This is a power game, nothing more.

  13. I admire you taking what you take to be a principled position in using the n-word and not backing down because of pressure. However, elsewhere you (correctly) point out the silliness of being a linguistic prescriptivist or trying to pretend meaning hasn’t changed over time.

    I’d like to hear your response to the argument that whatever should be true about saying the n-word in a purely quotational capacity ultimately the meaning of a communicative act is determined by the way people are disposed to interpret it.

    In other words even though I agree that it was a bad thing that people were persuaded mere mention (as opposed to use) of the n-word was itself offensive it’s a fact that they did persuade a great many people. So many people will in fact understand mere mention as offensive and doesn’t that in turn mean that it’s reasonable for other people to conclude that most people who continue to mention it understanding the offense it causes in fact intend to communicate that offense.

    So why not take the descriptivist position here and say, Well since I know that many people (foolishly?) will understand my mention of the n-word to be disrespectful and I don’t wish to communicate disrespect I’ll avoid doing so?

    1. Look, I think this was the right fight 20 years ago and if you’d succeeded in blocking the social adoption of the hard norm that even mention of the n-word by whites is offensive (only use is) that would have been great. But at some point you gotta recognize when you’ve lost.

      I guess it depends on whether thus is like the pedantic grammar types who have a dozen reasons why it’s morally wrong to let the meaning or if you believe just your line voice saying the n-word provides these important benefits your students will take away from you using. Or will it just make them say “hey remember that old law prof who insisted on saying the n-word our loud?” (I’d add, your mentions of it raise it in a social context where peer pressure will push them towards more not less extreme reactions to the word.)

      1. Peter Gerdes: By the way, at least in law the norm in judicial opinions, in briefs, and in court hearings continues to be towards following the “use-mention” dichotomy, and quoting epithets (including “nigger”) without euphemism or expurgation — it remains the most common approach even if you limit yourself to recent items.

        1. Putting a word in quotation marks does not make a quotation.

          Some people just seem to engage repeatedly in whatever gymnastics are required to use a word with plausible deniability.

          Perhaps more a ‘the liberals can’t tell me what to do’ issue than a ‘I like to use racial slurs’ issue — but who knows?

        2. Yes, that seems like a compelling argument if you were submitting a brief etc… I’m still unsure what great benefit it accomplishes if you use it in class. I mean I also don’t see what great harm it does either so ultimately I tend to think this isn’t a big deal. But it does seem likely that maybe a few people get a little offended so I’m unconvinced there is a benefit but I do agree that most of the excitement over this is people who want to exert power over others and this provides an excuse.

    2. Where do you draw the line? Cave in to “nigger”, next it will be “colored”, then “Negro”, then “black”, and what next? Why is it ok to say “people of color” but not “colored people”? Should the NAACP change to NAAPC? Yes, that would be mighty literally correct.

      If MLK said it, historically, it is damned silly to pretend otherwise. I bet he’d be embarrassed for all these people afraid of history.

    3. Thanks for the analysis, but I don’t think that’s quite right. The meaning of “nigger” is the same as in the 1960s, and the meaning of “Martin Luther King Jr. wrote ‘when your first name becomes “nigger,” … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait,'” is the same as well.

      Now it’s true that among some people in the audience, a new taboo has arisen — merely quoting the word has now become taboo, and doing so therefore also tends to convey the message, “I am refusing to abide by the taboo, to the extent that it covers merely quoting the word.” (Similarly, some taboos have vanished, so while saying “damn” in the past might have conveyed such a “refusing to abide by the taboo” message, it doesn’t do so any more, at least for most audiences.)

      But it seems to me that this message — and the refusal to convey the “I am abiding by the taboo” message that tends to accompanying euphemisms such as “the n-word” — is a perfectly legitimate message for professors, judges, lawyers, and others to send. And if asked why they are refusing to abide by the taboo, the answer “because at the university / in the legal system / in normal discussion between adults, it should never be taboo to accurately quote important facts” is a perfectly legitimate response.

      The same of course, applies to other taboos. For instance, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, some faculty members at the University of Minnesota put on a panel about “Satire and Free Speech After Charlie.” They illustrated the poster with the iconic post-massacre Charlie Hebdo cover, with a cartoon of Mohammed holding a sign saying “Je Suis Charlie.” That in turn led to calls to punish (or at least officially condemn) the display of the poster as offensive to Muslims. (I in turn include the poster in the Powerpoints that I use for my talk on hostile environment harassment law, which I’ve given at many law schools.)

      I am happy to acknowledge that the display of the poster violated a taboo against displaying pictures of Mohammed, and likely sent a message saying, “We don’t adhere to this taboo.” (By the way, I suspect that many of the organizers of the panel would not have themselves drawn pictures of Mohammed, perhaps in part because they would have thought it to be disrespectful — but included such a picture when it itself became a newsworthy image, back to the “use-mention” dichotomy.) I just don’t think there’s anything wrong with sending that message, and indeed I think there’s much right in doing so.

  14. I guess I should also say how horrifying this attack on academic freedom is. Being able to say things others regard as offensive is a cornerstone of the idea. We forget that in the past people took their religion as seriously as they now take anti-racism.

  15. Maybe we need to dissolve universities along with police departments…

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