By MATTHEW PINNA
A University of Chicago professor who has come under attack for using a racial slur as part of an anecdote to illustrate a key tenet in his Constitutional Law class has agreed to stop using the anecdote.
The issue emerged Tuesday when the U. of C. student newspaper, “The Chicago Maroon,” published an op-ed, which condemned the teaching practices of Prof. Geoffrey Stone, who had used the slur during his class on free expression.
According to the op-ed’s author, law school student David Raban, Stone told the class an anecdote regarding the “Fighting words doctrine,” a definition created by the Supreme Court in the wake of the 1942 court case of Chaplinsky v New Hampshire. The anecdote included use of the “n-word.”
In it, the court defined “fighting words” as “words which ‘by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.’” The court also recognized that said words played “‘no essential part of any exposition of ideas.’”
Raban described the anecdote in his op-ed:
“Professor Stone had asked a Mr. Green (‘who happened to be Black’) what he thought of the fighting words doctrine. Mr. Green had said that he felt the doctrine was no longer relevant. The professor then had asked a white student in an adjacent row what he thought of Green’s argument. The white student had said, ‘That’s the dumbest argument I’ve ever heard, you stupid [N-word].’ Green had then immediately lunged forward, attempting to choke the white student.”
In the op-ed, Raban accused Stone of furthering aggressive and racist stereotypes about African Americans. He claimed that it fostered a “safe space” for racism and “a hostile environment for education” within the school.
Aside from the implications of the slur itself, Raban also questioned the need for Professor Stone to use the “n-word” in the first place, arguing that as law school students, they already understood the impact of such words.
As a result, he called upon Stone to apologize for using the anecdote, as well as change his pedagogy.
Initially, according to The College Fix, a right-of-center higher education publication, the professor held his ground.
“‘I have been using the story, which is true, for several decades,’ he told The College Fix via email. ‘The point of the story is not to offend or insult anyone, but to illustrate the distinctive ugliness and power of that particular word and to demonstrate that if the fighting words doctrine has any continuing logic, it is with respect to the use of that uniquely hateful epithet. In a course on the First Amendment, it is essential to identify and to confront the very speech that defines the limits of free expression.’
After meeting with concerned students on Wednesday, however, Stone told The Hyde Park Herald that he had changed his mind.
“I had a very thoughtful conversation with a group of African American students yesterday and they gave me a much clearer sense of how hurtful, upsetting, and distracting they find the use of this word even when it is not used in a manner meant to be insulting or demeaning.” he said through email. “I was very impressed by the depth of their feelings and reactions, and decided that, with that insight, I wouldn’t use the anecdote in class going forward. In the end, I decide that the benefit of using the story is outweighed by the costs of doing so.”
He did not, however, consider his decision to cut the anecdote to run contrary to free speech.
“This was a great example of free speech in action,” he said, “because by taking the time to listen to their concerns I was able to reach a better decision on this question.”