(New York, NY) — PEN America today said that while it is contemptible that a professor at the University of Cincinnati called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” in an email to a student, the university should not punish him solely based on the content of that email. Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s campus free speech program, said the following:

“There’s no question that this professor’s response was both dismissive and offensive. Amid a climate of rising hate crimes, violence, and verbal assaults against Asian-Americans during the pandemic, conscientiousness demands refraining from a phrase that has been used by the Trump administration to foment hostility and distract from its own missteps. The use of the phrase reflects poor judgement and the university should speak out to affirm its commitment to rejecting racism, bigotry, and hate.

“We understand a university dean is reviewing the incident, and we caution against pursuing any formal reprimand based solely on the words in the professor’s email. As a matter of free speech and academic freedom, a disciplinary response to a single statement, in the absence of evidence of a broader pattern of biased or harassing conduct, risks constricting the space for open discussion on contentious issues. The university can and should continue to speak out on this issue, raise awareness, and unequivocally condemn what the professor said. And they can and should pursue an effort at dialogue with the professor, in the hope that he can hear out just how deeply and negatively this phrase may affect students and the wider community. But efforts at dialogue and community support will be more sensible, effective and justifiable than a punitive response.”