I’ll try to be brief here, but there’s a new series of incidents on my campus that has wound up with some law students calling for restrictions on free speech, and free speech is a flagship principle of the University of Chicago.
The incident involves Professor Geoffrey Stone of the Law School, who was the chair of the group that produced the Chicago Principles of free speech. He’s a respected constitutional lawyer, clerked for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, and has served as Dean of the Law School and Provost of the University. He’s a well-known liberal and author of many books on constitutional law.
But he also said the “n-word” in class: not, of course, to denigrate black people, but as an example of “fighting words” in a discussion of the First Amendment. As the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper, reported (click on link below), Stone has been using that word for years as an example:
From the Maroon:
For over 40 years, Stone has been telling the same anecdote to his First Amendment class and at guest lectures at other schools when teaching the fighting words doctrine. This doctrine holds that expressions of words that incite violence are not constitutionally protected by the First Amendment.
Stone would tell the anecdote as follows: In class over 40 years ago, a Black student said that the fighting words doctrine is outdated because words long deemed as “fighting words” no longer provoke violence. A white classmate then called the Black student the slur, saying, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” This prompted the Black student to reach over and grab the white classmate by the neck. Stone believes the white student’s use of the slur and the Black student’s response in that moment precisely demonstrate the continued relevance of the fighting words doctrine.
In an interview with The Maroon late last week, Stone explained why he had been using the full epithet when telling the anecdote.
“It’s important, If you’re teaching a legal concept, to use the words that are the subject of the legal prohibition and to ask, ‘should they be [legally prohibited]?’” For Stone, an important part of discussing why certain words are prohibited is to confront the harm that they can cause by saying the words in full.
“It’s utterly inexcusable to use the word for the purpose of degrading and insulting someone, but it’s a word that exists in our history, in our society, in our law, and you need to address it,” he said. “Not addressing it is almost failing to acknowledge how ugly and how offensive it is.”
He added that limiting the use of the epithet has broader implications, saying, “Once you say you’re not going to say this word, you’re inviting endless discussions about any other words on the list, the concepts on the list, and what else offends or upsets people.”
Here’s a photo taken at the protest. Note that one student is holding up a poster with the “n-word” on it. That puzzles me, for if the very sight or sound of the word is triggering, then he shouldn’t be doing that. If you say that it’s not triggering in the right context, why is Stone’s use of it the wrong context? Would it have been okay if Stone had been black?
But times are changing, and that word is no longer acceptable, even as an example, although black people are able to use it (see below). As the Maroon reported:
Stone said that his past stance was consistent with the norm of other contemporary legal scholars, citing Randall Kennedy, a Black professor at Harvard Law School. Kennedy wrote an op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education last month criticizing the administration of Augsburg University in Minneapolis for suspending a professor who said the racial slur in class when discussing literature by James Baldwin, and has also written a book specifically about the slur.
I feel that the word should not be banned, but should be used judiciously, as for example, when reading from Huckleberry Finn or James Baldwin or quoting lyrics of rap songs. Kennedy’s book is even called Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.
Some members of the Black Law Students Association then got together and had an impromptu teach-in, with speeches, in the law school. Stone happened to walk by and, at the request of BLSA members, sat down to listen to them. To his credit, he pondered what they said, and, in his First Amendment class an hour later, announced that he wasn’t going to use the word again when teaching. If he uses it in the future, he’ll refer to it as “the N-word.” As the Maroon further reported:
He said he ultimately decided that “though there was value in using the word, this was a situation where the cost was greater than the benefit.”
“I never appreciated, before, the extent to which [hearing the slur] was disconcerting and painful,” Stone said, adding that the conversation in the lounge “gave me a very different understanding that these arguments are not just political correctness, that there’s really something powerful there, and I found that very moving.”
“It’s not essential,” he said he realized about saying the slur. “It’s the distinction between useful or important and essential. There are lots of things that you don’t do in a classroom as a teacher which might be useful, but you don’t do them for whatever reasons.”
Stone added that he considered his decision through a personal lens. He said he has two half-Black grandchildren and he realized he would not want his grandchildren “to have to face this reality and sit there and go through what these students are going through.”
Though Raban’s op-ed did raise strong criticisms against Stone, Stone maintains that he decided to stop saying the slur not in fear of public backlash, but after being persuaded by the Law students in the lounge.
“They had the opportunity to say what they had to say to me, and did it so effectively,” he said. “I listened and changed my mind. That’s what free speech is about.”
In lecture, he announced to the class that he would no longer say the full epithet and tell the anecdote in class anymore. He told The Maroon that if the epithet comes up in his class, he “will refer to it as ‘the N-word.’”
I commend Geoff for this. He wasn’t bowing to pressure but to reason: he decided that his use of the word in class was no longer efficacious. It was his choice, for the University defended his right to say anything he wanted, adhering to Stone’s own Chicago Principles:
Asked for comment on Stone’s past use of the epithet and his change of mind, the University said in a statement to The Maroon, “We believe universities have an important role as places where controversial ideas can be proposed, tested, and debated by faculty and students. 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.”
Here’s a photo of Stone listening to members of the BLSA:
That should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t. The students, as reported in another article (link on screenshot below), asked the University to condemn Stone’s use of the word, and when it didn’t (as it won’t given the Chicago Principles), they decided to organize a demonstration. The BLSA and five other minority law-school groups are going to boycott “Admitted Students Weekend”, the time when students who have been admitted come to campus to meet with students and professors and get a feeling for the school. That weekend is critical in their decision about whether to come here.
All five racial and ethnic affinity groups at the Law School will boycott Admitted Students Weekend early next quarter, the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) announced in a petition sent to Law School administrators on Monday.
BLSA decided to organize the boycott of one of the Law School’s largest annual recruitment events after administrators did not condemn law professor Geoffrey Stone’s longtime use of a racial epithet in class, a controversy that recently resurfaced. The other affinity groups participating are the Latinx, Asian and Pacific American, South Asian, and Southwest Asian and North Afrikan Law Students Associations.
There are other forces behind the boycott, too, such as disaffection with statements made last year about immigrants by conservatives on campus as well as other unspecified claims of racism on campus. Stone’s use of the “N-word,” they say, is “symptomatic of a larger issue in the Law School.”
This refusal of minority-student groups to participate, of course, may well backfire, hurting the recruitment of minority students. Students of color participate in Admitted Students Weekend to help recruit other students of color. That won’t happen now, and this will surely deter minorities from coming here if they sense that current law students are disaffected. I presume the BLSA and others have weighed the risks and are using their nonparticipation as leverage to make the University bow to their demands.
Of course if there is real racism that can be rectified, the University should listen. And I have confidence that it will. But what bothers me is that the students seem to be asking for some watering-down of the Chicago Principles, so that there is no longer “free speech” that can be considered “hate speech”, as Stone’s presumably was. Here’s the Maroon’s reporting on the free speech issue:
The conflict underpinning the boycott stems from disparate views of how the University’s Chicago Principles on free speech should be applied. Law School administrators believe that, in accordance with the Chicago Principles, they have a presumption against weighing in on the speech used by a professor or campus group. The affinity groups, however, believe that in instances in which speech causes enough harm to students, administrators should weigh in.
“Free speech is not free, and as it is currently applied, the University’s free speech policy, the ‘Chicago Principles,’ leaves Black students bearing the costs,” BLSA said in the petition.
The petition, also published as an online petition, asks the Law School to “reconsider its absolute embrace of the University’s Freedom of Speech policy, or at the very least, reassess when and how the exceptions are applicable.” The petition also asks the Law School to “adopt an affirmative statement that expresses the Law School’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, professional ethics, and the fundamental pillar of civil discourse.”
This point is where my sympathy for the students ends. Free speech certainly is free here: the BLSA not only wrote op-eds and gave speeches, but persuaded Stone to change his mind. That’s the way free speech is supposed to work. In what sense do they mean “Free speech is not free”? I shudder to think.
The Chicago Principles allow all kinds of speech, including what Stone said in class, and we all know that if you start banning words or censuring/censoring professors for saying certain things, there will be no end to it. And, as always, who gets to decide what speech is banned? Every group will have its own list of things that cannot be said.
I simply cannot sign on to the students’ demand that our free speech policy be diluted. By all means the Law School should issue a statement affirming its commitment to diversity, inclusion, and professional ethics, but that should never include censorship of speech.
I’ve said enough, as regulars here know my views. I’ll just put a screenshot of the comment I made at the end of the second Maroon article above (the other commenters are of similar mind):
Note: they removed my comment when I added this website URL, so I’ll just put it back again.