(New York, NY)—Reports that a professor at the New School might be disciplined for using the n-word in a class on the work of James Baldwin represents a troubling threat to academic freedom and free speech in the classroom, PEN America said in a statement today. 

“Some words are so heinous that one can never expect to say them without some risk of offense,” said Jonathan Friedman, project director for campus free speech at PEN America. “But this is a case where intent matters. There is a distinction to be made between a racial slur wielded against someone and a quote used for pedagogical purposes in a class on James Baldwin. The New School cannot and must not discipline a professor for speech that is protected by the principle of academic freedom.”

Earlier this year, professor and poet Laurie Sheck discussed a 2016 documentary on James Baldwin entitled “I Am Not Your Negro.” She pointed out that the title of the film differs from the quotation from which it was taken, in which Baldwin used the n-word instead of “negro.” Sheck said she felt it was important to use the actual word. “As writers, words are all we have,” she told the publication Inside Higher Ed. “And we have to give [Baldwin] credit that he used the word he did on purpose.”

A white student objected to Sheck using the n-word, and Sheck addressed their concerns in class. This June, Sheck was informed that she was under investigation for discrimination under the college’s policy. 

“Professors must have the leeway to teach controversial topics and raise probing questions without fear of ending up in a disciplinary hearing,” said PEN America’s Friedman. “But after a spate of similar incidents at universities around the country, it would serve professors well to be aware of how the n-word can be heard and understood, regardless of the intent or justification for its use. Professors can reasonably be expected to consider how even the pedagogical use of a racial slur will be heard by their students. Universities can reasonably be expected to uphold their core values in the face of such controversies.”

PEN America has previously examined the importance of free expression, academic freedom, and open inquiry on college campuses in our 2019 report, Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, [email protected], +1 202 309 8892