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.

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  1. Well done.

    I'm all for policies that defend both Huckleberry Finn and Blazing Saddles.

    1. Why not include Birth of a Nation while you're at it, clinger?


      1. I don't know if it's still true, but Birth of a Nation used to be a staple in film classes.

        "Sure, it's racist as hell, but look at these techniques..."

        Being able to separate that kind of think was a valuable skill.

        1. Just mentioning some personal favorites.

        2. If the techniques are that good, surely they've been used in other films that aren't "racist as hell", no?

          1. "If the techniques are that good, surely they’ve been used in other films that aren’t “racist as hell”, no?"

            Dude, I forgot all of that right after the exam, and that was like 30 years ago.

  2. Education is the presentation of all aspects of a subject. Presenting one aspect is called indoctrination. All governmental privileges, subsidies and grants are for the purpose of education.

    Any indoctrination should result in the rescission of these governmental privileges. Go ahead indoctrinate, if you wish, but not with tax money subsidies.

    And, yes, physics class should present the Ptolemaic view of the planets, and the idea that the earth is flat. That would be a most useful class, saying, do not believe your eyes. Those who argued the Sun did not revolve around the earth were burned at the stake for a while. Those students who are sensitive are with the Inquisition 2.0, as is the lawyer profession. All PC is case. All PC comes from the fear of ruinous litigation. Zero tolerance for the Inquisition 2.0.

  3. 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.

    Conservatives hardest hit.

  4. Arthur's gonna have to reset his stopwatch again.

    1. It's not a stopwatch, it's a stopped watch, set on Retard.

    2. "Arthur’s gonna have to reset his stopwatch again."

      Only partially . . . Prof. Volokh has not engaged in viewpoint-driven censorship for more than a year (at least, so far as I am aware).

      I sense that trigger finger is a-itchin', though.

      1. "Whine, whine, whine... And carry on clingers."

        1. Conservatives handle the whining. Their betters are too busy shaping American progress against the bigoted, stale, superstitious preferences of America's right-wing culture war casualties.

          Stomping clingers into irrelevance can be time-consuming -- but is very rewarding and important work.

          That leaves the ankle-nipping to the likes of people who operate White, male, right-wing blogs.

          1. OMG you capitalized "White," which makes you racist. You should only put "white" in lowercase.

  5. I wonder how young students can understand appreciate what went before in relation to current conditions without being exposed to the full extent of what happened in the past.

    1. The answer is right in front of us - don't teach them that icky stuff at all!

      1. That’s the governing principle of conservative-controlled campuses. And, apparently, of White, male, right-wing blogs.

    2. ... did you just volunteer to get infected with small pox? How else are you going to appreciate vaccines?

      1. EscherEnigma: I totally agree: Educating college students by requiring them to suffer a 30% chance of dying would be bad. True, if there were some material that would literally kill you to hear (as always, Monty Python provides the relevant authority), I'd avoid that, too. Call me a radical!

        Thankfully, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail doesn't have that effect. And it seems to me that educating college students by requiring them to read and hear original source material that reminds them of unpleasant matters -- slavery, genocide, racism, etc. -- is a legitimate and important aspect of education.

        1. "(as always, Monty Python provides the relevant authority), I’d avoid that, too."

          Also the authority for the UCLA that some folks would rather see.

        2. ... is there someone standing behind me? Your second paragraph doesn't seem to be in response to any opinion I've written on this topic, but it's presented as though it is.

          Or, to put it in other words.. pray tell, what have I done to make you think I actually have a beef with your blog, rather then just rsteinmetz's hyperbole? Or can you not distinguish between criticizing hyperbole (in support of your point) and criticizing your point (which is far better reasoned then the hyperbole I mocked)?

          1. EscherEnigma: Got it, thanks -- sounds like I totally misunderstood what you were getting at .... Sorry about that!

            1. Maybe we should recognize that some problems derive from the difficulty some people have involving social clues, nuanced interactions, mainstream norms, etc.

              1. Maybe you can give us all pointers, Arthur.

                I'm sure you didn't earn your nickname "Nuanced Interaction Kirkland" for nothing.

        3. " (as always, Monty Python provides the relevant authority)"

          Help! Help! I'm being oppressed!

    3. "I wonder how young students can understand appreciate what went before in relation to current conditions without being exposed to the full extent of what happened in the past."

      Sure, start by assuming that today's young people have no direct experience to racism, then proceed to show them what it's like. And if some of them complain later on that your class was full of racism, patiently explain to them that they don't know what racism is really like

  6. I wouldn't file this under academic freedom, but under good pedagogy. That is, the teacher, to do her/his job, will have to discuss unpleasant or controversial stuff (maybe not in math, but then again some of those sine curves...).

    You know when students should protest? If they get a sanitized, unrealistic, Bowdlerized version of their subject.

    1. I agree as to good pedagogy, and this is how Randy's and my article is framed. But the statement from the Academic Freedom Committee naturally focuses on the academic freedom question, which is also important.

    2. I agree as to good pedagogy, but other serious, thoughtful people disagree. Hence, the academic freedom to choose the way you think is best to teach, as it should be.

      1. Academic freedom is about following the truth even when it leads to unpopular places. Originally, it comes from scientists finding things that offended the Church (i.e., Copernicus and Heliocentrism).

  7. The Volokh Conspiracy's "civility standard" is still set at

    vile racial slur (from conservative) -- no problem

    "sl_ck-j@w" (from non-conservative) . . . censorship

    making fun of conservatives . . . banishment

    The proprietor is entitled to identify and enforce these rules. Others are entitled to draw natural conclusions, particularly when considering candidacy to snipe at others for ostensible offenses against expression.

    1. “Whine, whine, whine… And carry on clingers.”

      1. Prof. Volokh thanks you for your sycophantic service.

        I thank you for being so hapless in the culture war.

    2. "making fun of conservatives . . . banishment"

      And yet, you're STILL here.

      Carry on, moron.

  8. What you're going to wind up with is the Parents Educational Resource Center demanding that classes be given ratings (before eventually settling for little warning labels in the course catalog).

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