Campus Madness: Amid Uproar, Princeton's Class on Free Speech Issues Has Been Canceled

Posted: Feb 14, 2018 10:35 AM

From the 'beyond parody' file, a class at Princeton University dedicated to exploring (among other things) the messy and challenging bounds of free expression has been canceled after students in the class melted down over the professor's approach to the course material.  The Huffington Post and the Weekly Standard have followed the contretemps, which seems at least as worrisome as any episode out of the "Campus Madness" genre's recent annals.  I'll explain why in a moment, but first, the dispiriting details -- starting with HuffPo (whose write-up came prior to the professor pulling the plug):

Several students walked out of an anthropology course at Princeton University on Tuesday after a professor repeatedly used a racial slur in his class about hate speech. The professor, Lawrence Rosen, is an award-winning legal anthropologist who has taught at Princeton University for 40 years. He received emeritus status last year. Rosen’s course, titled “Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy and Pornography,” explores the legal and cultural limits of free speech. This week, he led a discussion on verbal symbols and what types of speech should be protected. The heated debate that followed was first reported on by The Daily Princetonian. Destiny Salter, a 19-year-old Princeton student who identifies as black, told HuffPost that about 10 minutes into the class, Rosen gave this example: “Which is more provocative: A white man walks up to a black man and punches him in the nose, or a white man walks up to a black man and calls him a n****r?”″ He repeated the example once more, leaving students “shocked and visibly uncomfortable,” Salter said. A few minutes later, students began to point out their discomfort with a white professor using the word in its entirety. When one student asked if Rosen planned to keep repeating the word in future classes, the professor reportedly responded that he would if he deemed it necessary for the discussion....“I did not come to this school to hear my professor spout the N-word in class. Period,” [Salter said].

Rosen's methods and reputation were defended by both a university official and his department chair:

In a statement, Princeton’s acting university spokesman Michael Hotchkiss told HuffPost that the conversations and disagreements that took place in the seminar are “part of the vigorous engagement and robust debate that are central to what we do.” The university is in the process of setting up a meeting with the students, he said. “We will continue to look for ways to encourage discussions about free speech and inclusivity with the students in Professor Rosen’s class and the campus community more broadly,” Hotchkiss wrote. In a letter posted to the school newspaper, the chair of Princeton’s anthropology department, Carolyn Rouse, defended Rosen’s decision to use the racial slur. The purpose of the course, Rouse said, was to give students the ability to clearly state why hate speech should or should not be protected, using an argument other than “because it made me feel bad.” She pointed out that Rosen had also mentioned anti-American or anti-Semitic examples in the class. Rosen has reportedly been using the word “n****r” as an example “year after year.” This is the first year he’s gotten such a critical response from the class, she said. Rouse said she believes the students’ reactions were probably reflective of heightened racial tensions in America. “This is diagnostic of the level of overt anti-black racism in the country today,” she wrote. “Anti-American and anti-Semitic examples did not upset the students, but an example of racism did.

That backdrop was laid out in a piece written last week, prior to this esteemed professor deciding to wave the white flag and cancel the class altogether.  What precipitated his "reluctant" decision to do so? A Weekly Standard report suggests that a confrontation that nearly turned physical may have convinced Rosen that the situation was untenable (content warning):

One student in the class tells TWS that he believes the course’s cancelling may have had something to do with an interaction that happened “about halfway through the first seminar.” A male student of color stood up, inches from professor Rosen’s face and shouted “F**K YOU,” this witness claimed. Just before that, a female student of color had shouted at Rosen, as the first was approaching, “do you feel safe right now.” “There was no physical contact,” this witness claims, though at the time the student feared there might be. During that class, “nobody except Rosen defended Rosen,” the student told me. Another student in the class confirmed this account to TWS.

Princeton, to its credit, did not pressure Rosen to abandon ship; he made that call on his own. This incident is troubling because these students are supposedly among the "best and brightest" of our next generation of Americans.  They knowingly enrolled in a class literally devoted to examining of the role of hate speech within the realm of free speech, in addition to other thorny topics.  It was taught by an extremely respected faculty member who believes, entirely reasonably, that talking meaningfully about hate speech and the issues that surround it -- in an explicitly academic setting -- requires the use of hate speech.  Bear in mind that Rosen was not using the N-word as an epithet, which would clearly be out of bounds; there are (fairly rare) occasions where certain words and terms are banished from polite society for good reason.  But no one is alleging Rosen is a bigot.  He used it only in the context of analyzing the impact of racial slurs, as he's apparently done for years.  Students were evidently able to handle anti-American and anti-Semitic verbiage in this setting, employed for the same reasons, but threw a fit over the employment of the N-word.  Again, this is a class that specifically studies and explores hate speech in society.  

This was an intellectual exercise about an ugly and difficult subject matter -- which, apparently, is no longer possible at one of the country's most prestigious and selective institutions.  Multiple students staged a walkout, with at least one invading the professor's personal space and screaming profanity in his face.  The mindless mob won.  If Princeton follows Yale's disgraceful lead in handling 'social justice warrior' students who openly berate faculty members for perceived transgressions, they'll actually honor the "brave" shouter who menaced a professor and shut down a class.  What a hero.  If these are our future 'elites,' we're in trouble.  Relatedly, I'll leave you with these accounts about my lecture at Brown University last night on the themes of End of Discussion:

Fortunately, the security precautions proved unnecessary, as the event went off without a hitch.  There was a small walk-out (which I didn't even notice, frankly), and the Q&A portion included a number of respectful challenges from left-leaning students.  That's how these things ought to go.  Many thanks to the Brown Republicans, the university, YAF, and the police officers who were on duty for my protection, just in case.

Recommended Townhall Video