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Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom Alliance Letter to San Diego State University

Philosophy professor suspended from teaching his class on racism for showing a slide with examples of racial epithets


The Academic Freedom Alliance released a public letter to San Diego State University calling on the university to reaffirm the academic freedom of philosophy professor J. Angelo Corlett.

SDSU removed Corlett from the classroom after students complained that he had shown a slide with examples of racial epithets in his class on Philosophy, Racism and Justice and his class on critical thinking. His published scholarship has focused on issues of racism and hate speech, and he brought that expertise to bear in his classroom teaching.

Although Corlett does not currently seem to be under investigation for violations of university policy, he has been removed from teaching his classes and will apparently be "reassigned" to teach other classes in the future. The Vice President of Student Affairs and Campus Diversity asserted that such an administrative decision was "not about free expression or academic freedom." The university administrator is mistaken.

For professors to be removed from their classes because students object to the controversial content of those classes strikes at the heart of academic freedom protections. It violates San Diego State University's own stated policies that guarantee freedom of teaching to faculty and the freedom of every member of the campus community to express even "offensive speech."

The university's actions also violate its obligations under the First Amendment. Notably, the university specifically recognizes those First Amendment rights of faculty members in its policies. San Diego State University's actions here are eerily reminiscent of the situation assessed by a federal circuit court in Hardy v. Jefferson County Community College. In that case, the community college ended the employment of an instructor when some students and community activists objected that he had discussed various racial epithets and how they could be used to marginalize and oppress in his class on interpersonal communication. From the opinion in the Hardy case:

The lecture included a discussion and analysis of words that have historically served the interests of the dominant culture in which they arise. Hardy solicited from his students examples of such terms. Among their suggestions were the words "girl," "lady," "faggot," "nigger," and "bitch."

The court found that such a classroom discussion was protected by the First Amendment and that university administrators who could be shown to have retaliated against a professor for engaging in such constitutionally protected speech could be stripped of the protections of qualified immunity.

San Diego State University should immediately reinstate Professor Corlett to his classroom duties and should reevaluate how it responds to complaints about contractually and constitutionally protected speech in the future.

From the letter:

There is no question that the removal of Professor Corlett from the classroom is a form of university sanction. It is also quite obvious that removal or "reassignment" of Professor Corlett in specific response to controversial but instructionally germane material that Professor Corlett introduced into his classroom is not just relevant to his academic freedom but a grievous violation of is academic freedom. The AAUP has long emphasized that suspending a professor from his teaching duties is in and of itself a "severe sanction second only to dismissal" and should be undertaken only when absolutely necessary and with proper procedural protections. There can be no excuse for imposing such a sanction as a consequence of student or administrator disagreement with the content of a class. If the freedom of teaching that is at the heart of academic freedom means anything, it must mean that faculty cannot be removed or "reassigned" because someone objects to the ideas being taught. It is not hard to see how this assertion of a unilateral power to reassign instructors who offend their students could have sweeping consequences for the freedom of university professors to teach contentious subject matter. A university could just as easily "reassign" a professor if a student objects to a professor teaching critical race theory, and the consequences for academic freedom would be just as dire.

Read the whole thing here.

UPDATE [from Eugene Volokh]: For Prof. Randall Kennedy's and my pretty detailed article on this subject, albeit focused on our field (law teaching), see The New Taboo: Quoting Epithets in the Classroom and Beyond.