The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom Alliance Letter to the University of Rochester

English professor threatened with discipline for reading aloud from Randall Kennedy's article on the n-word


The Academic Freedom Alliance has released a public letter to the University of Rochester objecting to the treatment of an English professor there. Professor David Bleich has long taught classes dealing with sensitive subjects in race and gender. Those courses include readings that make use of offensive language. As is often the case, the details of the assigned texts need to be discussed in class and the texts need to be read aloud and quoted accurately in order to facilitate that careful analysis. Such conversations can sometimes be difficult but they are at the heart of what it takes to do college-level work in literary criticism and analysis.

This semester, Professor Bleich is teaching a class on Gender and Anger. He read aloud from a short story that had been assigned to the class. The portion of the text he read included the n-word. Students objected, and there was a vigorous conversation about the use of the word. In a subsequent class, Professor Bleich read to the students a section of Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy's Chronicle of Higher Education article on the use of the n-word in classroom settings.

The university responded by suspending him from teaching his class and putting in place various restrictive conditions that must be satisfied before he would be allowed to resume teaching. The university is taking the position that it is never appropriate for a professor to say the n-word aloud in a college class.

This issue has become a common one at universities across the country. Some professors have been insufficiently thoughtful about the language they use in classes, and these controversies have sometimes led to a desirable reconsideration of how instructors approach their teaching. But these controversies have also stifled the ability of professors to engage in the kinds of conversations that should be taking place in college classrooms. It is not appropriate for professors to hurl slurs at their students, but it is academically essential that professors be able to discuss slurs and how they are used. Universities ought to be able to understand the difference between the use of a word and the mention of a word.

The Bleich case highlights the dangers here. A dean from a completely different discipline has made a unilateral decision about how English professors should conduct their literature classes. The same sweeping edicts from above would have implications for a host of other classes where offensive language might need to be discussed frankly and clearly in disciplines ranging from anthropology to history to philosophy to linguistics.

The University of Rochester is going down a path that violates its own clearly stated contractual commitments to academic freedom, and in the process it is doing a disservice to both its students and its professors.

From our letter to the University of Rochester:

As the AAUP has elaborated on the implications of this freedom to teach, it has repeatedly emphasized that classroom discussions of the type at issue here are well within the bounds of the principles of academic freedom to which Rochester has contractually committed itself and that are generally accepted within the profession. The AAUP's 1994 report on freedom of expression firmly concluded that it would be a breach of professional ethics and outside the bounds of academic freedom for a professor to ridicule or harass a student in the classroom, but that such "verbal assaults" had to be sharply distinguished from the expression of hateful ideas, including the words that are used to express those ideas. Offensive speech must sometimes be used in the classroom, and it is subversive of the protection of freedom of classroom teaching to depart from established legal standards of harassment to proscribe frank classroom discussions of the ideas, words and behaviors that might be used to harass.

You can read the whole thing here.

Unsurprisingly, Professor Kennedy was unamused by the suggestion that it is inappropriate for a college professor to read aloud from Kennedy's own work. As he told the AFA:

"It is profoundly disturbing to see an instructor investigated and disciplined for grappling in class with a term that has had and continues to have a hugely consequential place in American culture. The demand to make this term – 'nigger' – literally unmentionable is a demand that ought not be honored. Compelled silence or bowdlerization is antithetical to the academic, intellectual, and artistic freedom essential to higher education."

The University of Rochester should immediately reverse course and reaffirm its commitment to being an institution of higher education and a university that respects the intellectual abilities of its students and the academic freedom of its professors.

NEXT: “Undue Burden” in Dobbs: A Revolution Disguised as a Tweak?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. the n-word

    Oh, the irony.

  2. If there is any institution in modern America that defends (and exercises) the right to use a vile racial slur, it is the White, male, movement conservative, obsolete Volokh Conspiracy.

    Carry on, clingers.

    This White, male, conservative,
    legal blog has operated for
    SEVEN (7) DAYS
    without use of a vile racial slur
    and for -- congratulations! --
    TWO (2) YEARS
    without imposing partisan,
    viewpoint-driven censorship.

    1. Is Black Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy to be denounced for saying, in a public place: “Is it acceptable for pedagogical purposes to enunciate the epithet 'nigger'?” If so, could you explain the harm that is intended or produced? If not, why not?

      1. Welcome back Swood!

      2. I sometimes question and sometimes respect Prof. Kennedy's judgment. He has seemed at times to be too quick to appease or excuse bigots and other lowlifes, for example. He seems to have become less willing to appease clingers lately, to his substantial credit.

        1. I sometimes question and sometimes respect Prof. Kennedy's judgment.

          Something which I am sure continually occupies his mind.

    2. I take it you are not a card-carrying member of the ACLU? That you are small-c conservative like any little town that might ban such a Nazi parade?

      You aren't one o' them situational ethicists, finding high value in a principle as long as it supports your already-decided goal, then abandons it in a different context when it doesn't, are you?

      1. None of the above.

        Try inferiority-complexed individual with compulsive need to virtue-signal his own supposed superiority.

        1. I prefer to be recognized as a member of the great American liberal-libertarian mainstream and a culture war victor.

          1. No doubt that is your preference.

            There are many people in the insane asylum who prefer to be recognized as Napoleon Bonaparte, Conqueror of Europe.

            1. Are you enjoying the resounding conservative victory in the American culture war, Bored Lawyer?

              Do you ever expect the liberal-libertarian mainstream to regain its political footing in America?

              On precisely which day is Donald Trump to reclaim his position as our nation's real president?

              Thank you for your perspective.

  3. "This semester, Professor Bleich is teaching a class on Gender and Anger."

    Students take out large loans to pay for such classes?

    If you're going to be a martyr for academic freedom, at least do it by teaching some classic like, say the Rape of Lucrece.

    1. I simply can't understand why woke students with chips on their shoulders would be attending a class on gender and anger. /sarc

      1. Do you find the course offerings at Liberty, Regent, Wheaton, Ouachita Baptist, Bob Jones, Franciscan, Biola, Dallas, Ozarks, Messiah, Christendom, and Oral Roberts more understandable?

        Or at any divinity school, department of theology, department of religion, or Bible college?

        Why anyone familiar with the quality of conservative-operated schools would figure the modern American mainstream is in the market for pointers from clingers on education is a mystery.

        1. You obviously don't need a course in anger. You seem to have a postgraduate degree in it.

          All you need to balance it out is a bit of logic.

          1. You do not prescribe a dose of adult-onset superstition?

    2. While I totally endorse the OP's opinion on this issue, I have to admit that my gut reaction upon reading the name of the course was - to quote the grand philosopher, Super Chicken - "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred."

  4. Fun bit, my speech synthesizer pronounces "Bleich " as "bleak", all too like this professor's prospects.

  5. It seems Rochester is a private university. I don't know if it "incorporates" First Amendment principles in its regulations.

    Even at a public university, a professor teaching a class seems to me, for 1A purposes, like any other public employee talking while on the clock as part of his job duties. In other words, the government can decide for itself how much, or how little, leeway, the employee has in such situations.

    But I could always be wrong - what do our precedents say? The precedents are the final word on the 1A, after all.

    1. The OP was heavy on its contractual agreements to the teachers, so maybe private? Either way, the good Rev should be happy of this, rather than them relying on the First Amendment.

      He won't be, but he shoud. He's largely responsible for this blog also paying attention to private schools violating their boilerplate blather to free speech and academic freedom.

      1. You figure this blog's (or FIRE's) approach to academic freedom and censorship is improved by the way it purports to distinguish superstition-based modifications to freedom of expression from other such modifications?

        Enjoy that clingerverse bubble.

        1. As for FIRE, though I don't know how recent this was, but they have a blue-light "warning" symbol for certain colleges:

          "when a private university clearly and consistently states that it holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech, FIRE warns prospective students and faculty members of this fact."

          The institutions with "warning" signs are Baylor, Brigham Young, Pepperdine, St. Louis, US Military Academy, US Naval Academy, and Yeshiva.

          Liberty University was among the Top 10 worst offenders in 2019 according to FIRE. Top 10 offenders also included a couple schools in Alabama and a school in Utah called Dixie. Is this simply ankle-nipping?

          1. FIRE must navigate a delicate balance . . . flattering its strident right-wing donors and avoiding offending its superstitious ideological allies without losing a plausible (albeit hollow) claim to be a nonpartisan, mainstream organization.

            It thinks it accomplishes this by respecting superstition-based deviations from free expression while dismissing other statements of values that limit free expression.

            If a school indicates 'we reject evolution because a fictional idol commands this,' FIRE dons its matador costume and waves that school's censorship, mockery of academic freedom, and peddling of nonsense along. If a school indicates 'we value diversity and inclusion,' however, FIRE ignores that point and expresses outrage with respect to censorship of bigots and stale, ugly speech.

            Most of FIRE's fans are gullible by nature, so this seems to be working for them to some degree.

  6. "class on Gender and Anger"

    I'm angry this class exists.

    1. One would get more bang for the buck studying male anger, worldwide problems-wise.

  7. The cases that the AFA has to challenge are getting more and more ridiculous. At what point to we admit that academic freedom is dead and the first amendment is meaningless?

    1. I think it's a private college, so the first amendment doesn't factor into it. This is simply a policy criticism (a criticism that I completely agree with). Although I guess there might be some kind of legal recourse if he was fired for a policy that was never explicitly stated until after he violated it. But I have no idea what kind of employment contract he signed, so they might have had the right to fire him for anything they think contradicts the school's values... or some such cover.

      In cases like this it seems like the best thing to do is continue to criticize the policy to as many people as possible and hope that enough people agree with the criticism that it can possibly influence schools' policies.

      What else can you do?

      1. We're seeing more and more flagrant abuses of academic freedom around the country. Criticism is fine, but it's not likely to solve the problem. To influence a university, one has to do the legwork of organizing the influential alumni and donors to lobby the board of trustees. Still, it's a sorry state of affairs for something once considered a bedrock principle in academia.

        With respect to the first amendment, my point was that it is largely meaningless when there is a broad-based control of language, either in the form of huge corporations run by a small number of people who wield state-level power, or decentralized agreement among a large fraction of society.

        When the first amendment was envisioned, only governments had this kind of coordinated mass power, so limiting them was sufficient for ensuring free speech. Today, that is no longer the case.

  8. Further proof that too many people attend college.

    1. Education-disdaining clingers are among my favorite culture war casualties.

  9. I've said this here before and I didn't get any serious responses but why is it that the use-mention dichotomy control here? Anyone here that's an atty is aware that one can form the use of a word in a mention-context. So why do you guys just say use-mention dichotomy and pretend that itself renders the question of "should?" moot?

    1. Wait, does this mean someone could try and get their jollies on by saying the n-word in the context of pretending to deplore it or contextualize it?

      If that's not your point I'm really sorry, but I'm trying to formulate a serious response.

      1. Monty Python had a song (YouTube has it) where they call on the audience to "never be rude to," followed by a series of racial/ethnic slurs.

    2. I don't know what exactly you mean by the "use-mention dichotomy" but I think you mean that context matters. And it clearly does.

      There is a big difference between calling someone by a racial epithet, which is vile, and quoting that in the context of studying a case, or dealing with a hypothetical where it is appropriate. Certain areas of the law -- employment discrimination, hate crimes -- often have use of crude and charged language in them. You cannot practice those areas of the law without coming across that often, and if you are a professor teaching that area of the law, then it is perfectly appropriate to quote those words, either in studing past cases or in a hypothetical discussion about a case.

      Same may apply to other, non-legal disciplines. Like it or not, racism is part of our history. The notion that you cannot read, say, Mark Twain, in a literature class, because his use of certain words will cause some students to faint, is both absurd and infanitlizing to the students.

      I am not black, but I am Jewish and have had vile anti-semitic things said to me. I still am mature enough to differentiate between someone who calls me names to my face, and someone who, say, studies the rise of anti-semitism in 1930s Germany.

      A year or two ago, some people got into a conniption because some police chief in the Northwest had a collage with Nazi memorabilia. But it turns out that this father, who fought the Nazis, collected them as souvenirs of his time at war in WWII, and he put them together to honr his father's service. To me, I honor his father for having fought the good fight, and I despise any Jew or gentile who tries to accuse him of anti-semitism.

      1. I'm well aware that the context matters. The people saying that context doesn't matter are the AFA who, on the basis of whether the "BAD WORD" is "mentioned" or "used", consider it to be dispositive towards whether or not it was "ok". My point is that this is a facially stupid analysis that removes any actual context and pulls an ostrich move by merely analyzing a single sentence containing the "BAD WORD". The AFA is insisting that any time the word is "mentioned" as opposed to being "used" (i.e. pejoratively at someone) is fine. That's an entirely superficial analysis that removes any question of the merits to which all the complaints stem. As I post every time these cases come up, I went to law school and my education didn't suffer because my professors neither USED nor MENTIONED racial epithets, yet here the AFA insists otherwise EVERY SINGLE DAY.

  10. I don't believe I've spoken the word n****r since I was 16 (I'm now 78), but I think people who really oppose anti-Black racism should be prepared to use the word from time to time. Because it's an ugly word that discloses an ugly idea. Have you ever read "Travels With Charley" by Steinbeck? Toward the end of the book he describes traveling through the South in the early days (1962) of the civil rights revolution, and he has a discussion with a civil rights opponent who uses the word n****r constantly -- I mean the real word, over and over again, not something cutesy like "the N word". I can't imagine taking or teaching a lit course like this one, but if you want students to understand racism, make them listen to the racists talk.

    1. " I don't believe I've spoken the word n****r since I was 16 (I'm now 78), "

      The Volokh Conspiracy has published that word many times -- in an least 15 different contexts so far this year, for example -- so that you do not have to.

Please to post comments