Academics Rally for Freedom of Expression

A new organization brings together more than 200 professors of diverse political persuasions. They tell of having had enough of being threatened with sanctions if they offend the sensibilities of students, particularly over questions of race and gender.

In January, a professor of law at the University of Chicago was temporarily suspended from his duties because in the wording of an exam, he had included a hypothetical case of workplace discrimination in which a Black employee was called “n****r.” The word was not written out in full in the text, but students knew that it is a word with a particularly violent racist connotation in the United States. Students complained, explaining that this word “had shocked” and “caused distress and anxiety to those who were sitting for the exam.” They then demanded anti-racist training, and the administration opened an inquiry.

To support professors who find themselves in such situations, political scientist Keith Whittington and other colleagues at Princeton University have created the Academic Freedom Alliance, whose mission it is to enable academics “to speak, instruct and publish without fear of sanction or punishment.”

Pressure from the Left and the Right

“The incidents known to the public are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other cases that don’t attract media attention,”* explains Whittington, noting that dozens of academics have already contacted his organization to request assistance.

The researcher regrets in passing that the defense of freedom of expression nowadays is perceived as almost exclusively a battle of the right. To counter this tendency, the founders of the organization have been careful to recruit members from across the political spectrum, from far-left philosopher Cornel West to conservative jurist Robert P. George.

Whittington states that the Academic Freedom Alliance will defend professors threatened with pressure coming both from the left and the right. He cites the case of a lecturer whose course was temporarily suspended because he had published an anti-police tweet, which had triggered the wrath of conservatives on social networks. But of late, most of the controversies involve questions of race and gender, such as when a professor was suspended for having said “ne-ga,” a Chinese word which too closely sounds like the word “n****r” in English.

Students Complain of Being ‘Traumatized’

Educational content, as well, is in the balance. According to jurist Jeannie Suk Gersen, many professors of law avoid teaching about cases of sexual assault and rape because certain students complain of being traumatized by these discussions.

Historian Amna Khalid, one of the founding members of the Alliance, has experienced a transformation of the norms of debate in universities over the last 10 years. “There was an explosion of ideas inspired by critical race theory about social justice,” she explains, “and little by little, the words have lost their meaning. The word ‘racism’ is a term that has taken on a much larger connotation than previously; the terminology has become very imprecise. Originally, racist meant something very precise, but now everything can be racist.”

‘Many Prefer To Keep Silent’

Some legislators want to forbid outright the teaching of critical race theory in schools (with several bills in Republican states). Khalid opposes this sort of censorship, but views the ideas inspired by critical race theory (an interpretation of the world based on the dynamics of racial oppression) as having a tendency to be presented as the sole acceptable point of view, without any possibility for discussion.

For example, while courses on diversity, anti-racism and “cultural competence” are on the increase on campus, criticizing them has become very dangerous for teachers and students, even though several studies have shown that they were not helpful. “The conversation is structured in a very binary way. Either you are anti-racist and you support these courses, or you are critical and that means that you are racist. Many prefer to remain silent rather than being accused of racism,”* she explains.

‘The Left Has Abandoned the Fight for Freedom of Expression’

This historian, specializing in South Asia and the history of medicine, speaks very frequently of current questions of race and gender because doing so involves a perspective that she judges essential in her research. What she regrets in the new trends is not so much that these questions are raised, but that they are raised in a way that is extremely “prescriptive and dogmatic.”* She has numerous students who are afraid of speaking up, of asking questions where sensitive subjects are involved, because those who challenge the dominant discourse in certain colleges run the risk of being seen as reactionaries.

“Unfortunately, the left today has abandoned the fight for freedom of expression,” Khalid explains. “However, historically, freedom of expression has always been a weapon of the weakest, a way of drawing attention to injustices. But now, those who defend freedom of expression are seen as being on the right. That’s also the reason many keep silent.”*

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted passage could not be independently verified.

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