There’s a long list of words you can’t say at Smith College – or apparently reproduce in the student paper.
Smith alumna Wendy Kaminer, a feminist lawyer and civil-liberties advocate, spoke on a panel discussion on free speech and hate speech at Smith in September, and asked the audience what word came to mind when she said “the n-word.” When they said it out loud, she repeated it and said “nothing horrible happened.”
Predictably, Kaminer was accused in the Huffington Post of committing “an explicit act of racial violence,” as noted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) this week. Smith’s president – who moderated the panel – even apologized for those who felt “unsafe” listening to Kaminer.
But because Kaminer wears many hats in her advocacy – a former ACLU board member and advisory board member at FIRE – her situation is drawing wider notice.
FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate wrote in the Wall Street Journal this weekend that Kaminer’s treatment is just the latest trend in academia, and it’s why “liberal-arts education can’t survive” if such intolerance is left unchallenged by free speech advocates:
The event—and Ms. Kaminer’s words—prompted blowback from Smith undergraduates, recent alumnae and some faculty members. One member of the audience posted an audio recording and transcript of the discussion, preceded by what has come to be known in the academic world as a “trigger warning”:
“Trigger/Content Warnings: Racism/racial slurs, abelist slurs, anti-Semitic language, anti-Muslim/Islamophobic language, anti-immigrant language, sexist/misogynistic slurs, references to race-based violence.”
That transcript appears to be what Smith’s student paper, The Smith Sophian, posted last month, and indeed it has that lengthy trigger warning above the actual transcript, as well as a disclaimer that “all slurs have been edited out with brackets.”
As FIRE’s blog post on the Kaminer kerfuffle notes, the transcript labels a “slur” a word that most of us use regularly:
All instances of “nigger” are written as “[n-word].” Kaminer’s use of the word “cunt”—which she used one time, to clarify a student’s reference to “the c-word,” was written as “[c-word],” resulting in this line in the transcript:
WK: And by, “the c-word,” you mean the word [c-word]?
Clarification was evidently needed, considering that another c-word was also censored from the transcript:
[Smith President] Kathleen McCartney: … We’re just wild and [ableist slur], aren’t we?
That’s right, wild and crazy. It took my colleagues and me a moment to figure that one out (it is audible in the audio recording of the panel). Despite this word apparently being too offensive to reproduce in the transcript, it was spoken by all three of the other panelists besides Kaminer, in addition to President McCartney.
FIRE rails against the Smith Sophian‘s abdication of its own mission:
It is the Sophian’s editors’ prerogative to cut words from its reporting, but to do so is counterproductive. Newspapers exist to provide information, and censorship inhibits that goal. It also cannot be justified in the name of safety, since no reasonable person could interpret the publication of an accurate transcript as threatening.
Read the FIRE post, Journal op-ed and Smith Sophian transcript.
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