Free speech ‘purist’ persuaded to stop using N-word in class

Geoffrey Stone says students’ successful efforts to persuade him not to use racial slur are a good example of free speech

March 13, 2019
University of Chicago

Geoffrey Stone, Edward H. Levi distinguished service professor of law at the University of Chicago, is something of a free speech purist. He chaired the committee that wrote the much-emulated Chicago statement on campus speech, for example, and he’s not afraid to make students uncomfortable if it helps them learn.

Until this week, that included saying the N-word during a law lecture he often gives on the “fighting words doctrine”. That’s the legal line between free speech and words that would incite immediate violence or retaliation. Professor Stone has previously argued that saying the N-word to illustrate it is useful.

This week, however, after meeting with a group of students who were hurt by his recent use of the word, Professor Stone said that he won’t say it any more.

“This is really important – this is not about censorship, or about anybody telling me what to do or not to do,” he said. “This is something on which students have enlightened me. And that’s great.”

Professor Stone has been telling the following anecdote from early in his teaching career: a black student in one of his classes said the fighting words doctrine might be outdated. To make a point, a white student in the class then said: “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, you stupid [N-word].” As Professor Stone tells it, the black student immediately lunged at the white student, illustrating that the doctrine was indeed still relevant.

This semester, however, the anecdote didn’t go over as he’d intended. Professor Stone said he was visited by a white student in his class who was deeply offended by his use of the N-word and by a law school student leader who had heard complaints from several black students.

Professor Stone said that he spoke with the two students and heard their concerns. He also explained his rationale for using the slur – to educate, not to harm, students – at the next meeting of the law class.

That’s something of a common distinction for professors to make: using the word because it appears in a text, case law or pertinent example of a concept is acceptable, while using it against a student or any other individual or group is absolutely not.

Increasingly, however, professors are facing complaints from students and, in some cases, colleagues, for using the word in any form. A professor of anthropology at Princeton University, lecturing on hate speech and cultural taboos, gave up teaching a class last year after students faulted him for using the slur in a manner that he believed was educational, for example.

Princeton supported that professor’s right to use the word. That isn’t always the case on all campuses. Augsburg University recently suspended a professor for using the N-word in a class lecture about a James Baldwin novel in which it appeared.

But Chicago supports Professor Stone, saying in a statement that it is “deeply committed to the values of academic freedom and the free expression of ideas, and to fostering a diverse and inclusive climate on campus”.

Universities “have an important role as places where controversial ideas can be proposed, tested and debated by faculty and students”, Chicago said. “Faculty members have broad freedom in the choice of ideas to discuss in the classroom and in their expression of those ideas, and students are free to express their views on those subjects.”

Regardless of institutional responses, many professors have vowed on their own not to use the word at all.

In Professor Stone’s case, he believed the matter was resolved after he clarified for his class why he’d used the slur. But the student who’d originally complained to him went on to publish an op-ed this week in The Chicago Maroon student newspaper about the incident.

A professor “doesn’t have to use the actual N-word to explain to students why that word could incite violence. We already get it,” writes the student, David Raban. “And any point he tried to make was completely obscured because both his story and act of retelling it were racist.”

Mr Raban added: “They were racist because he, as a white man, repeated a word used by white people to perpetuate the subjugation of black Americans for hundreds of years. He trivialised the word’s history and the lived experience of black students. He employed the word to highlight a white student’s reprehensible treatment of a black student. He lent credence to the false stereotype that black men are prone to violence. He primed black students through stereotype threat to learn less and perform worse.”

A day after the op-ed appeared, Professor Stone said, he left his office to get lunch and was approached by a group of black law students who asked to talk to him.

In what Professor Stone said was productive exercise of the First Amendment, the students conveyed to him that the N-word was so loaded, hateful and, ultimately, distracting that using it in class negated any educational benefit.

Professor Stone was persuaded.

“It was very illuminating, I have to say,” he said. “I then went into class and basically said that, having had this conversation with these students – not because anybody made me do this, just from listening to them about what a distraction it is, and how much pain is caused – I’ve decided not to use this example in class.”

He added: “That’s why this a great example of free speech, which means not only talking, but also listening.”

This is an edited version of a story which first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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