U of C minority law students boycott “admitted students weekend” after University fails to condemn professor who used “n-word” in class as an example; students further call for restrictions on free speech

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tell the anecdote as follows: In class over 40 years ago, a Black student said that the fighting words doctrine is outdated because words long deemed as “fighting words” no longer provoke violence.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?

Photo courtesy of Black Law Students Association

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:

Photo courtesy of Black Law Students Association

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.

Read on:

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.

60 Comments

  1. Posted March 17, 2019 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    It is unfortunate that we empower the word by refusing to say it, almost like the Tetragrammaton. And Stone did not use the word but referred to its use. Nonetheless, given how things are, his decision was sensible.

    Why are people so fond of condemning?

    • Taz
      Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      The impression I got is that he did use it when relaying the anecdote.

    • max blancke
      Posted March 17, 2019 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      Power. They seek power.
      It is empowering to make people apologize for words or actions that you disapprove of.
      It was never about the word itself. If the word was really that offensive to them, they would not use it themselves so often.

    • Deodand
      Posted March 17, 2019 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

      Because like all bullies they get off on seeing their victims squirm.

      In any case as ‘everybody knows’ the purpose of free speech is to promote equality. If someone disagrees with that they are a fascist and have no rights.

  2. Michael Fisher
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Jerry – Your Maroon comment is not there [I checked both links]

    • Posted March 17, 2019 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      They deleted it after I added the link to this post. I’ve put it back up without the link. If it’s gone now, they’re simply censoring me, which is unfair given that every commenter agrees with me.

      We shall see . . .

  3. pablo
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to be chuckling over that “I’m Upset” sign all day.

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    But times are changing …

    Then you better start swimmin’
    Or you’ll sink like Geoff Stone

    • grasshopper
      Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      🙂

  5. Jonathan Dore
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    In other words, the students’ intention was rather like the Austrian government’s when it issued its absurdly intrusive ultimatum to Serbia in 1914: they weren’t expecting it to be accepted, and so when it was, they had to cast around for some other pretext for war. Likewise the students weren’t expecting Stone to agree with them, so have had to concoct some arbitrary extension to their demand to justify their continuing outrage, and mask its disproportionateness.

  6. Posted March 17, 2019 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    The correct response to the students would be an extra assignment on “use—mention distinction”, no apology whatsoever, and pretending they’d never embarrassed themselves. Free speech is irrelevant for this case, but I assume they target the professor due his advocacy. They’re woke after all, and woke people — if motivated against someone — will either find the mark of the devil, or fabricate it.

    But since these students are now customers who pay good money, everyone must take their every whim seriously.

    If that doesn’t help, they ought to get an extra assignment on 1984, as trite the reference feels by now, to show that you can never totally forbid the usage of a word in a democratic society. Imagine a situation where judges sentence someone, but nobody can spell out what the accused actually did, including the judges.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 17, 2019 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      “Imagine a situation where judges sentence someone, but nobody can spell out what the accused actually did, including the judges.”

      Oh I *like* that analogy. And of course, the Life of Brian clip. It’s incredible how relevant that movie is today.

      cr

    • Posted March 18, 2019 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      That was my thought as well – it is a great teachable moment on a basic aspect of writing. (I would hope that law students, if any, would have done this already, but …)

  7. merlynleroy
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    To paraphrase Abbie Hoffman, when you can’t say “nigger”, you can’t say “My favorite Richard Pryor album is ‘That Nigger’s Crazy'”

    (1974 Grammy for Best Comedy Album)

    • merlynleroy
      Posted March 17, 2019 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      Whoops, that should be Lenny Bruce, not Abbie Hoffman…

  8. Posted March 17, 2019 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Trying to ban this particular word, and other derogatory terms for various minorities, only makes it more harmful when it is used with the intention of doing harm.

  9. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    So what did any of these students do or sacrifice for getting the teacher to do what they wanted him to do. They don’t show up for an event. No quitting. No laying down in the hallways. No burning of the first amendment. No marching protest through the school. I haven’t seen this kind of dedication and commitment since I got out of bed this morning. I hope they make it through another upsetting day.

    • Taz
      Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      Hey now. She had to find a piece of cardboard and a black marker and write “I’m upset”. What more do you want?

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I respect Stone’s decision, and I take him at his word that he was persuaded by the students’ presentation. Yet I suppose there’ll always be a glimmer of doubt whether discretion was the better part of valor in this instance.

  11. davidintoronto
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    There’s a very good Steven Pinker lecture on Youtube called the “language of swearing.” And in addition to the usual list of naughty words, Pinker also considers various racial/ethnic epithets – including the epithet at issue here. But the video is a decade old. I wonder if Dr. Pinker would give the same lecture today? Or would he, for his own protection, self-censor?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      Yes, from that lecture, a friend and I learned about and try to find ways to use, “Kiss the cunt of a cow”.

      • BJ
        Posted March 18, 2019 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        I really want to know the top three funniest ways you’ve found to use that phrase!

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 18, 2019 at 9:26 am | Permalink

          My friend has tried to use it in traffic but he says it doesn’t work so well. I’ve mostly used it when talking to the same friend to express my annoyance with a person in a story I’m telling. 🙂

  12. DrBrydon
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    I am afraid I need some better examples of racism at UC Law School than a professor who decided on his own to stop using a racial epithet as an example of provocative language. If that truly is demonstrative of the racial environment, then I think these students are pushing against an open door.

  13. Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    I can remember when calling someone black was a fighting word. And saying negro or colored was acceptable.
    Probably will be again in a few years as the wheel keeps turning around and around.

  14. Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    How long will it be until a white professor even using the euphemism “the N word” will be unacceptable, I wonder?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 17, 2019 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      It’s absurd. Everybody knows what ‘the n word’ means, how is that any different from saying ‘n—-r’ in exactly the same context?

      cr

    • Posted March 19, 2019 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      I own a _Dictionary of Euphemisms_. It points out this “arms race” (which is itself a euphemism). Seems to be a sociolinguistic universal.

  15. Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    As for free speech, zoysia opinion is that the professor should not give the example or use the other fighting words in class. They are not listed in the statutes. They may be in cases where the use of the words has been challenged. He could give the students the list of cases for them to read.
    There are a lot of things that should not be said in class, not just fighting words.
    I am s member of the silent generation. Maybe I am just old fashioned.

    • Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      my not zoysia

  16. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I’ve cited Prof. Kennedy’s slim volume as the best work on the topic before. He and it first caught my eye when Kennedy defended Quentin Tarantino’s use of the word in Pulp Fiction against an objection by Spike Lee.

    • BJ
      Posted March 18, 2019 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      *Spike Lee tweets Ken Jennings address*

      Spike Lee objects to just about everything he can. And he made one of the most offensive pieces of art in history: his remake of Oldboy.

  17. Vaal
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    It still amazes me how one mention, even in a teaching context, of the N-word by a white person brings on howls of hurt and protests.

    While Rappers who have taken over popular music use the word with abandon and none of these people show up to protest.

    I get the idea on the surface of “taking back the power of the word” by black people using it, and to a degree “we get to say this word, you don’t.”

    But if the word is THAT toxic and THAT much of a minefield, why in the world would it make sense to constantly keep it alive, promulgating the word to largely white audiences, woven in to hooky songs?

    It’s a horror show if one white person utters the word, but having it blasting out of countless sound systems through the world seems less of a concern.

    I’m frankly against the N-word to the degree I’d prefer to see it go away entirely. I’m bloody sick of hearing it pumping out of my son’s laptop or whenever he gets to play “his music” in our car (he’s a fan of Rap, like so many young white men his age – the largest audience for rap IIRC). But that doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen and, frankly, it doesn’t seem to me like the reason for that is going to be laid at the feet of instances like this.

    • Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      It’s because it is not really about the word.

      • Helen Hollis
        Posted March 17, 2019 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

        I feel the same way. It is complicated.

  18. Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Wiki:
    “They gatherin’ ’em up, from miles around/Keeping the ‘n’ word down.”
    “Rednecks” is a song by Randy Newman, the lead-off track on his 1974 album Good Old Boys.”
    “Steve Earle recorded a country-grunge cover of “Rednecks” in 2006…”
    it’s going to be difficult to eliminate ‘N’ from the landscape.

    • Taz
      Posted March 17, 2019 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Not to mention its 10,000 occurrences in rap music.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 17, 2019 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        Yeah but Rap is mostly bla^H^H^H Persons of Color, and it’s all right when they use it.

        I call bs on the whole thing.

        cr

  19. Robert
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    If Donald Trump was black he would say white people can”t say nigger but blacks can.
    What I am trying to say here is that this whole controversy is dumb.

  20. ladyatheist
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Apparently, it’s still a fighting word.

  21. Jimbo
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    I am a strong proponent and defender of the Chicago Principles. I also appreciate Stone’s reasonable compromise but I do have a question for this board: wouldn’t it be better if Stone at least rotated the N-word to other examples of a racial epithet when teaching the “fighting words” subject? Why indeed must this word always be the go to example to prove the point? Couldn’t the fighting word epithets for a woman or Jew, etc. also be used and would that be a more balanced treatment of a difficult topic?

    • Adam M.
      Posted March 18, 2019 at 12:58 am | Permalink

      I’d guess that there were no other instances in his class where a discussion of fighting words led to fighting, except that one…

  22. bewilderbeast
    Posted March 17, 2019 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    Hats off to Prof Stone. Very few white males do humility. Very few of us white males do humility.

    • BJ
      Posted March 18, 2019 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      Very few people show humility, but you had to make this about race and sex. Your comment is an excellent lesson in some of the forces behind controversies such as the one discussed in this post.

    • Posted March 18, 2019 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      To me, he had little choice.

  23. Rasmo Carenna
    Posted March 18, 2019 at 3:09 am | Permalink

    All this autod-da-fé behavior around a word looks to me like the ‘woke’ version of blasphemy law.
    I find it beyond ridiculous.

  24. docbill1351
    Posted March 18, 2019 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I find the entire concept of being oh-so-coy with the euphemisms hilarious.

    I also find it unintellectual and downright stupid.

    The N-word, F-word, C-word, R-word. A pretty news anchorlady can say “F-word” and be smiling, prim and proper, and we all know what “F-word” means, but if she said the actual F-word, well, then she’d be a dirty, little C-word!

    It seems to me that if the BLSA is going to be consistent, then they must also condemn rap music and musicians who use the N-word.

    Here is the legendary, sorry, L-word, George Carlin on the absurdity of it all:

    And ISMO on shades of meaning

    • BJ
      Posted March 18, 2019 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      The much funnier, not-suitable-for-late-night-TV version of Ismo’s bit:

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 19, 2019 at 12:54 am | Permalink

        That’s really good. Or, to use an old English-ism, that’s shit-hot. As far as English language is concerned, he really knows his shit, no shit. 😉

        (Personally, I think the most multi-meaning word is ‘piss’, but I could easily be wrong about that).

        cr

        • docbill1351
          Posted March 19, 2019 at 9:10 am | Permalink

          And there was I on the platform at South Kensington station reading aloud the graffiti across the tracks – Eric is a wanker!

          My English friends were embarrassed and horrified. “What’s a wanker?” I said loudly.

          I suppose that would be the W-word.

  25. Posted March 18, 2019 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Yup, time for puppies, crayons, coloring books, and safe rooms for these entitled brats who need a good education on the Constitution, free speech, and judicious use of language! Send them all home to their mummies and duddies for protections!

  26. Posted March 18, 2019 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    sp error: protection.

  27. Dave
    Posted March 18, 2019 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Each of those signs is problematic, at least to me.

    First of all, “I’m Upset”. Boohoo.

    Second, does the word “Fuck” not upset anyone? Was *literally* everyone asked before that was put out there as representative of their group?

    Next, no one said you’re their nigger.

    Also, “A White Professor said…”? So if a black professor would have said it, it’d have been okay?

    No one was justifying racism in anyway. Nor was it cloaked in anything by anyone as their policy.

    The word obviously has no negative impact to them if they’re not complaining about it’s pervasiveness in sports and entertainment. When they start raising hell about that, let me know. Until then, they’re just pouting children.

  28. Posted March 18, 2019 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    I find this a classic example of bully culture which will take a mile whenever you give it an inch.
    And then, some will still say that diversity is strength. Really? In my observation and experience, diversity is a burden. And the more you praise it, the heavier it becomes.

    • Dave
      Posted March 18, 2019 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      I guess it depends why you consider what to be a strength. Diversity is strength in that it offers a variety of experiences and input into a situation, which is widely considered to be a good thing, in my experience.


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