The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

UCLA Academic Freedom Committee on "Academic Freedom to Quote Offensive Source Material in Class Discussions"


The UCLA Academic Senate Committee on Academic Freedom (which I'm chairing this year) has just released this statement. There was a high-profile controversy earlier this year involving UCLA Political Science Department lecturer Ajax Peris, who was faulted for reading—in a lecture about the history of racism—a passage from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail ("when your first name becomes 'nigger,' your middle name becomes 'boy' (however old you are) … and your wife and mother are never given the respected title 'Mrs.' … —then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait"), and playing a documentary on lynching where the word "nigger" was also quoted. This led the Committee to consider the broader issue, and here's what it put out; it's not a binding university rule, but we hope it will be influential.

Note that I have also been faulted for quoting source material that contains epithets, but in that situation the Dean, while publicly disagreeing with me, acknowledged the academic freedom right to do so. It was the higher-profile poli sci case that led to the statement being prepared (and the task was suggested by a different member of the committee, not me). If you're interested in Prof. Randy Kennedy's and my more detailed article on why we think it's proper to quote such material in law schools, you can find a draft here.

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Academic Freedom to Quote Offensive Source Material in Class Discussions

University classes often examine and discuss source materials that people—legislators, donors, the public, students, and others—may find offensive. These materials may include writings that expound offensive ideas, or discuss violent, even horrific events. The materials may include visual depictions of genocide, slavery, and other atrocities, as well as the symbols of regimes and ideologies responsible for such horrors. The materials may also discuss regrettably everyday crimes such as rape, child molestation, murder, and domestic abuse, as well as other disturbing matters such as depression and suicide.

Just to offer a few examples, the materials may include passages from Mein Kampf; photographs from concentration camps; photographs of lynchings; depictions of swastikas or Ku Klux Klan rallies; court documents discussing racist behavior; passages from the autobiographies of the victims of violence, war, and oppression, or from fictional descriptions of violent events; or statistical data that reflects disparities among various groups. The materials may also include books, films, songs, and other works that include specific words or phrases that many find offensive, from vulgarities to epithets to blasphemy. They may also include creative works that try to accurately capture the (often harsh) reality of some time, place, or environment, as well as critique and analysis of those works. Such material can come up in many different fields, such as history, law, sociology, psychology, biology, African American studies, women's studies, art, art criticism, literature, music, musicology, film, and theater, just to name a few.

Academic freedom includes instructors' rights to assign such material, and to display and discuss it in class and in related assignments, both in writing and verbally. Academic freedom likewise includes students' rights to discuss the material. The willingness to confront and discuss even highly disturbing realities is a vital part of the "freedom to teach"—"the right of the faculty to select the materials" and "determine the approach to the subject."[1]  Indeed, the freedom to candidly discuss such realities is especially important to those who want to draw people's attention to injustice, violence, and oppression, whether they are faculty members, civil rights leaders, artists, or others.

Some instructors may choose to omit certain material that they think may be especially disturbing, or may choose to present it using some degree of euphemism or indirection. Such choices are part of the freedom to teach secured by academic freedom. Likewise, instructors may choose to quote or display source material completely and accurately, even when some people find it offensive. That choice is likewise secured by the freedom to teach, because accurate and complete rendering of source material is within the accepted professional norms for university instruction. All instructors, aware of their responsibility to effectively teach material, must make these decisions based on their own professional judgment. No-one— including legislators, donors, administrators, students, or others—can have a veto over such instructor decisions.

Instructors may also, if they think it proper, choose to alert students that certain offensive material will be discussed in class (whether such alerts are offered as to the course as a whole, or as to particular sessions). There is debate within the research literature about whether  such trigger warnings are helpful, ineffective, or counterproductive; the decision on such matters, as on other aspects of lesson design, is left to the instructor. "UCLA neither mandates that faculty use trigger warnings nor prevents them from doing so. It's faculty choice, which is consistent with academic freedom."[2] Instructors may also choose, if they think it helpful, to explain (whether in the class or on the syllabus) their pedagogical choices about what source material to quote and how.

Naturally, students who disagree with instructors' pedagogical choices, whether as to words, symbols, or ideas that they find offensive, also have the freedom to present their views as well, whether to the instructor, to the public, or to classmates. "Students should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion."[3] Such disagreement and "reasoned exception" gives instructors a valuable opportunity to seriously consider students' views on such choices, as on other matters. As with other matters raised by students, instructors may decide whether these matters would be discussed as part of class discussion or outside class time, and whether and how deeply they should engage with these matters.

No ideas or words from source material can be taboo in the university. At the university, there is freedom to discuss everything that faculty and students study.

[1] American Association of University Professors, Statement on the Freedom to Teach,; Letter from U.C. President Richard C. Atkinson re: Revised Academic Policy Manual Policy 010, Academic Freedom, Sept. 29, 2003 ("freedom of teaching").

[2] UCLA Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, Free Speech FAQs,

[3] Am. Ass'n of Univ. Prof., Joint Statements on Rights and Freedoms of Students.