“A Professor of Philosophy & Ethics at San Diego State University (SDSU) has been relieved of some of his teaching duties after saying a racial slur for teaching purposes,” reports Campus Reform. He said the N word, in discussing the difference between using a racial slur (like calling a black person the N word) and merely mentioning the word.
This disciplinary action likely violates the First Amendment, because a federal appeals court ruled that a college instructor had the right to say the N word in discussing its racist usage, in Hardy v. Jefferson Community College (2001). Universities argue in court that professors no longer have free-speech rights in the classroom, due to the Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling that speech that’s part of an employee’s job generally isn’t protected by the First Amendment against disciplinary actions. But that ruling, Garcetti v. Ceballos, didn’t involve universities or college professors (but rather a prosecutor). And in that ruling, the Supreme Court noted that academic freedom might still protect instructors’ speech in colleges. Several federal appeals courts have since ruled that academic freedom indeed still applies to professors’ classroom speech — that is, professors’ in-class speech is still protected, if it is not disruptive, and discusses social or political issues or other matters of “public concern” (like scholarly writings) rather than purely private interest. That includes the court with jurisdiction over San Diego State University, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It ruled that academic freedom still protects professors’ speech, in Demers v. Austin (2014). So in California, college instructors do have First Amendment rights in much of their in-class speech.
Professor J. Angelo Corlette was removed from teaching two courses at SDSU after he was confronted by an African-American student, who was not enrolled in the course, about his use of the “N-word,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Corlette justified his use of the “N-word” in an op-ed in the Union Tribune. It was to illustrate the “‘use-mention’ distinction in philosophy.” This distinction, he explained, is a “foundational concept in determining what language counts as racism — distinguishing between racist language (the “use” of a racial slur, including racist intent) and racial language (the mere “mentioning” of a racial slur, without racist intent).”
SDSU Vice President for Student Affairs and Campus Diversity Luke Wood told the Union-Tribune that the university “had a number of students …. who’ve complained,” and that Corlett’s removal “was about actions, not about freedom of expression.”
Since his removal from the classroom, Corlett has rebutted some of the allegations made by students and college officials. In an open letter, he explained his use of the word by noting that “the use-mention distinction was of crucial importance to my lecture that day, as was the distinction between racial mention v. racist use … The necessity of a speaker’s/writer’s intent for their meaning is logical and scientific fact about language and its meaning.”
“Nobody has either a legal or an ethical right to not be offended,” Corlett observed. Indeed, the Supreme Court said in Texas v. Johnson (1989) that it is a “bedrock principle” under the First Amendment that the government cannot prohibit “expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
In a letter two months ago to SDSU’s president, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) asked the university to “restore Corlett to his courses immediately” and “reaffirm its commitment to academic freedom.” FIRE noted that the use of racial slurs for teaching purposes was historically accepted, citing a similar instance at Princeton University as well as the court ruling in Hardy v. Jefferson Community College, where the right of an instructor to use the N word was upheld in a 3-to-0 ruling by a federal appeals court.
Ironically, SDSU has a written freedom of expression policy that purports to recognize freedom of expression as “integral to the mission of the University.”
The policy reads:
“Freedom of expression is a tenet of higher education; is integral to the mission of the University and to its students, staff, and faculty;is a central and inviolate freedom to learn and teach; necessary for an educated populace; is a requisite to a free society; is incompatible with the suppression of opinions; is incompatible with prior restraint; encompasses forms of expression other than speech; and defends the expression we abhor as well as the expression we support.”
FIRE Program Officer Sabrina Conza lamented that “SDSU’s reassignment of Professor Corlett violates its First Amendment obligations to respect faculty’s academic freedom and provide them with vital pedagogical leeway to determine how to navigate challenging topics in class.”
She also indicated that Professor Corlett might bring a First Amendment lawsuit with FIRE’s assistance, stating that “FIRE considers many options when advocating for student and faculty rights on campus, one of the tools being litigation.”
Professor Corlett declared that freedom of expression “affords me the academic freedom to teach my students as I see fit, provided the material is germane to the subject matter of the course. I do not lose that freedom simply because one or more students or administrative functionaries might find my language disagreeable or even offensive.”