The Volokh Conspiracy

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


Taboos in Universities, Against Displaying Certain Images and Quoting Certain Words

"Dr. Kostihova compared showing the image [of Muhammed] to using a racial epithet for Black people ...."


The New York Times (Vimal Patel) wrote yesterday about the Hamline University lecturer who was fired for displaying a painting of Muhammed in class. The article identifies the lecturer by name, Erika López Prater, which to my knowledge hadn't been publicly done until a few days ago. And it adds some other noteworthy items:

The instructor's actions, [Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations,] said, hurt Muslim students and students of color and had "absolutely no benefit."

"If this institution wants to value those students," he added, "it cannot have incidents like this happen. If somebody wants to teach some controversial stuff about Islam, go teach it at the local library." …

Four days after the class, Dr. López Prater was summoned to a video meeting with the dean of the college of liberal arts, Marcela Kostihova.

Dr. Kostihova compared showing the image to using a racial epithet for Black people, according to Dr. López Prater.

This vividly illustrates, I think, some of the points that Randy Kennedy and I wrote about in The New Taboo: Quoting Epithets in the Classroom and Beyond with regard to similar demands for expurgating items (there, quoted epithets) from class discussions of source materials, such as court opinions, court records, historical documents, musical works, and so on. And it reinforces our view (see especially pp. 56-57 of that article) that, if universities adopt a norm that professors should expurgate epithets from the sources they're discussing, it will be hard to credibly and consistently reject other demands for expurgation, including of supposedly blasphemous images.

Randy and I take the view that neither quoted epithets nor blasphemous images should be taboo. Hamline takes the view that both should be taboo. But if one is taboo, it seems to me hard to justify treating the other differently, and to credibly respond to reactions such as Mr. Hussein's:

  • Both kinds of demands for restriction claim that certain materials are highly offensive, and perhaps even produce "trauma" or "impact" students' "grades."
  • Both assert that the materials are disrespectful to members of minority groups, precisely because showing or saying such materials runs contrary to norms that the group and its supporters feel strongly about, and present as demands.
  • Both argue that restriction is necessary to maintain good relations with the students: "If this institution wants to value those students, it cannot have incidents like this happen."
  • The minority groups in both situations are at risk of physical violence (though of course not in the classroom) from people who dislike those groups, and the perceived disrespect may remind them of their vulnerability.
  • Both kinds of demands argue that the material must be removed even in contexts where the teacher isn't trying to use the material as an insult. To quote one of the Hamline students, "Hamline teaches us it doesn't matter the intent, the impact is what matters" (and presumably the evident absence of any intent to derogate Muslims is irrelevant to the impact).
  • Both could in principle be satisfied by expurgating material—using euphemisms, blacking out portions of images, and the like—rather than completely omitting it (though in both situations, some people may not be satisfied even by that).
  • The supporters of both kinds of demands therefore say that their demands are very modest: just a minor level of expurgation of certain material.

Once one accepts one such taboo, the other becomes much harder to resist. Better, I think, to instead reaffirm a basic principle (which I think is supported by many people's negative reaction to Hamline University's firing of the instructor): American universities should be places where teachers and students studying a subject can discuss the subject's source material—even material that may offend some people for whatever reason—as it actually is, without expurgation.