AFA Sends Letter to University of Rochester on Professor’s Use of N-Word
Letter defends Professor David Bleich, who was suspended for using the word in class
PRINCETON, NJ – The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) sent a letter to the University of Rochester on behalf of Professor David Bleich, who has been suspended from teaching for his use of the n-word in an English class. Bleich used the word first by reading from a short story that had been assigned to the class and then by reading from an article by Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy, who is a prominent expert on the history and use of the n-word.
“I write on behalf of the Academic Freedom Alliance to express our firm view that these disciplinary actions directed toward Professor Bleich are an egregious violation of his academic freedom,” wrote the AFA’s Keith Whittington in a letter to Dean Gloria Culver of the University of Rochester’s School of Arts and Sciences. “This interpretation and application of the university’s harassment policy would conflict with longstanding principles of academic freedom embraced by American universities, and it would be in breach of the University of Rochester’s own stated commitment to academic freedom.”
“Professor Bleich’s case is a prime example of an increasingly prevalent violation of free speech and academic freedom on campuses today, in which certain words—often words that are culturally or historically significant—are banned from use even in relevant scholarly contexts,” said Samantha Harris, the attorney representing Professor Bleich. “If the University of Rochester cares about academic freedom and its legal responsibilities to defend free speech, it will immediately reverse its disciplinary actions against Professor Bleich.”
“For 30 years, I have studied and taught about the use of language,” said Professor Bleich. “This includes texts by African Americans that utilize the n-word, many of which are important works of the civil rights movement. I think it is urgent that students be able to encounter these uses of the n-word without the idea that the mere hearing of the word causes harm – an idea apparently being encouraged by administrators who seem to believe that their students are too fragile to fully engage with these important and challenging parts of our history.”
Regarding the controversy, Randall Kennedy, a Professor of Law at Harvard University, member of the AFA, and author of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, stated, “It is profoundly disturbing to see an instructor investigated and disciplined for grappling in class with a term that has had and continues to have a hugely consequential place in American culture. The demand to make this term – ‘nigger’ – literally unmentionable is a demand that ought not be honored. Compelled silence or bowdlerization is antithetical to the academic, intellectual, and artistic freedom essential to higher education.”
- The letter from the AFA to the University of Rochester
- Article from Randall Kennedy on the use of the n-word
- The AAUP’s 2007 Report on Freedom in the Classroom, emphasizing that “ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored because a student with particular religious or political beliefs might be offended.”
The Academic Freedom Alliance is a diverse alliance of college and university faculty members who are dedicated to upholding the principles of academic freedom and professorial free speech. These principles are central to the mission of our institutions of higher education for the pursuit of truth and knowledge. The AFA is committed to defending universal principles of academic freedom and will come to the assistance of professors regardless of their individual views. The Academic Freedom Alliance itself takes no position on the merits of the substantive content of faculty speech or writing.