A First Amendment expert says a University of Oklahoma professor’s use of the “n-word” in class may not be constitutionally protected speech.
OU professor Peter Gade used the racial epithet in class last Tuesday in response to a student’s comment that “journalists have to keep up with the younger generations.” Gade took the remark as the equivalent of an “OK, boomer,” and replied that it is akin to calling someone the n-word.
Shocked students left the classroom upon hearing the slur, with some telling the dean they would no longer attend Gade’s class.
Gade eventually apologized, but the OU interim president called the professor’s choice of language “fundamentally offensive.” Now, the OU Daily reports Gade’s language may not even be protected — despite OU being a public institution.
Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, points to the 2006 US Supreme Court case Garcetti v. Ceballos which ruled (professor) speech must be “germane to the subject matter.” Academic freedom, Calvert continues, “is more relevant to how professors teach their classes” and doesn’t necessarily apply to Gade’s situation.
“In this case, because it’s set inside the classroom … that comes down to an argument (of), how relevant really was the usage of that term?”
“(For example) if I said … in calculus, ‘Fuck this formula,’ that’s not really germane to the subject matter. But if I were talking about the seven dirty words George Carlin case in a communications law class, and I said ‘These are the seven words the court had to analyze – fuck, shit, whatever,’ then that’s germane to the subject matter.” …
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that works to protect the rights of students and faculty at universities across the U.S., said in an emailed statement that OU was correct in referencing that the law “appropriately distinguishes between talking about racial slurs, including in class discussions, and directing them at others.”
“Because academic freedom is protected by the First Amendment, public universities are generally barred from punishing professors for referencing a slur in an in-class discussion with a relevant pedagogical purpose,” the statement read. …
But Calvert said the professor could be disciplined — and even fired — if the university considered his use of the slur irrelevant to the subject matter. The university’s decision may be more gray because the professor was not using it in reference to source material.
FIRE’s statement also notes that academic freedom “protects the discussions between faculty and students that take place in classes, even when others consider those discussions unwise, foolish, or offensive” … and “requires breathing room to survive.”
It is, of course, debatable whether the comparison Professor Gade made was an apt (and wise) one, but given it was in response to a student’s question — and related to the topic Gade teaches — it certainly appears “germane” to the subject at hand.
If OU officials opt for the opposite view, especially on the premise that the n-word is anathema now in just about any circumstance (especially involving non-blacks), they will create a slippery slope akin to that advocated recently by several Democratic presidential candidates.