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Washington State announces it will not allow professors to ban words they don’t like

After a national uproar over a Washington State professor who threatened to mark down or even fail students who used words such as “illegal aliens,” “tranny,” or referring to men and women as “male or female,” campus officials on Monday came out in strong support of free speech, pledging to “modify” syllabuses that ban words.

Here is their statement:

PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University deeply values the tenets of freedom of expression for every member of our community, including all students, faculty and staff. Those First Amendment rights are reinforced in our policies, procedures and practices. Open dialogue, vigorous debate and the free exchange of ideas, as well as the language used to convey these ideas, are at the core of who we are as a higher education institution.

Over the weekend, we became aware that some faculty members, in the interest of fostering a constructive climate for discussion, included language in class syllabi that has been interpreted as abridging students’ free speech rights. We are working with these faculty members to clarify, and in some cases modify, course policies to ensure that students’ free speech rights are recognized and protected. No student will have points docked merely as a result of using terms that may be deemed offensive to some. Blanket restriction of the use of certain terms is not consistent with the values upon which this university is founded.

Free speech and a constructive climate for learning are not incompatible. We aim to cultivate diversity of expression while protecting individual rights and safety.

To this end, we are asking all faculty members to take a moment to review their course policies to ensure that students’ right to freedom of expression is protected along with a safe and productive learning environment.

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Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, told Inside Higher Ed via email that “there are multiple issues at play in the debate over the Washington State syllabus” …

Faculty members have the right to take measures designed to ensure a classroom atmosphere conducive to free and open discussion and debate,” Reichman said. And he noted that the syllabus doesn’t just ban some words or phrases, but references the value of civilized debate. He pointed with favor to a part of the syllabus that says: “We all have differing opinions, beliefs and practices. The course materials may challenge your personal beliefs or opinions, and this is an open space to discuss these disagreements in a civilized, academic manner.”

The problem, Reichman said, is that “blanket bans on specific words or expressions that some may find offensive would seem actually to contradict the true spirit of open and free discussion.”

The AAUP opposes speech codes, Reichman said.

Read the full Inside Higher Ed article.

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