The National Coalition Against Censorship and the other organizations signed below are deeply concerned about efforts to punish an adjunct professor at Columbia University for recounting for her class a conversation with a member of the Ku Klux Klan that included racist epithets. A complaint has been filed against the professor, Dinah PoKempner, who was general counsel of Human Rights Watch at the time. Human Rights Watch has since terminated PoKempner.
PoKempner was teaching a class on how hate speech is treated by different legal systems as part of a course offered by Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR). During a virtual session, she recounted a deposition that she witnessed, of a member of the Ku Klux Klan, in which a prominent civil rights attorney used the “n-word” several times in a successful effort to induce the witness to reveal a racist motive that could be used against the group in court.
PoKempner quoted the conversation to her Columbia class, using the word rather than censoring it. Later in class, students expressed distress at her use of the word. In response, she apologized repeatedly, expressed respect for student opinions and invited a dialogue about their concerns. Nevertheless, a complaint has been filed against her with Columbia’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) office. Human Rights Watch fired PoKempner after receiving a recording of her remarks from Columbia officials.
A good education will be contentious and emotionally charged at times. Students of color, particularly Black students, are likely to feel significantly more discomfort in discussions of hate speech than their white peers. Such discussions should be approached with sensitivity to this truth. But context has to matter. University administrators must draw a clear line between using abusive language and accurately recounting history.
PoKempner is an international human rights advocate who was teaching about the legal treatment of hate speech. In an academic context, quoting an epithet is much different than using the word as a slur. That distinction must be acknowledged by administrators, even while students have the right to criticize and complain about a teacher’s choices. Teachers must be allowed to determine when the accuracy and impact that are lost by not quoting these words outweigh potential student discomfort. This is a question of both academic freedom and of the truthful, rigorous inquiry we hope for from higher education.
As Professors Randall Kennedy* (Harvard Law School) and Eugene Volokh (UCLA School of Law) recently wrote in an article for Capital University Law Review: “Omitting [epithets] veils or mutes an ugliness that, for maximum educational impact, and indeed for maximum candor, ought to be seen or heard directly. And omitting them sends the message to students that they should talk around offensive facts, rather than confronting them squarely.”
PoKempner’s case is not the first incidence of professors facing backlash for failing to substitute “n-word” when quoting the epithet. Statements issued by both ISHR and Columbia’s provost referencing this incident failed to acknowledge any nuance in how language is used in educational contexts and threaten to chill academic speech throughout the university. Professors must be allowed to teach sensitive material. NCAC and the signers below hope that Columbia will dismiss the complaint against PoKempner and that all academic institutions will reaffirm their commitment to academic freedom by supporting professors in similar circumstances. If context and nuance are removed from the classroom, we have much to fear for the future of education. We must vigilantly protect the right of professors to introduce material that provokes, upsets existing beliefs and sometimes even creates anger. Students have a right to expect protection from personal abuse and discrimination, but they must be prepared to engage with words and ideas they find offensive.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Society of Journalists & Authors
The DKT Liberty Project
The Tully Center for Free Speech
Woodhull Freedom Foundation
*Randall Kennedy is a member of NCAC’s Board of Directors.