Back in June, FIRE wrote to Howard University after it punished law professor Reginald Robinson for including on a quiz a question involving a client receiving a Brazilian wax. We reported in July that a tentative agreement between Robinson and the university had been reached. Unfortunately, that tentative agreement fell through, and the case remains unresolved, leaving Robinson’s and other Howard professors’ academic freedom and free speech rights at risk.
We wrote over the summer:
During a September 2015 class, a female student challenged a test question’s premise that a person could sleep through a Brazilian wax. After a complaint to administrators by two students and a 16-month investigation, Robinson was informed that one of the students allegedly believed the question’s premise somehow required her to reveal to the class whether she’d had a Brazilian wax. This dubious assertion, coupled with the use of the word “genitals” in the law school test question, contributed to then-Deputy Title IX Coordinator Candi Smiley’s determination that Robinson is guilty of sexual harassment.
Although Howard is a private institution and thus not bound by the First Amendment, the university explicitly promises its students and faculty members free speech and academic freedom rights. These sanctions run counter to Howard’s own academic freedom policy, which states that faculty members are “entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subjects.”
As FIRE explained in our letter, Robinson’s quiz question does not fall within Howard’s definition of “sexual harassment” according to its written policies. Additionally, law professors simply cannot teach their subjects if they may be punished for covering topics that make students uncomfortable. It is inevitable that when discussing torts and crimes — particularly those involving someone’s body — real life cases and hypothetical questions will be unpleasant to think about. But to omit all of these uncomfortable conversations would be to give Howard’s law students an incomplete legal education and leave them ill-prepared to practice law in the real world.
It shouldn’t have taken Howard long to conclude that Robinson’s quiz question was protected and not punishable under university policy. Unfortunately, the case proceeded quite differently:
After a 504-day investigation, administrators determined that Robinson would be required to undergo mandatory sensitivity training, prior administrative review of future test questions, and classroom observation. Robinson also received a stern warning that any further “violations” of the university’s Title IX policies may result in his termination.
In other words, Robinson could be fired simply for, again, trying to do his job of teaching students the law.
FIRE has still not received a response to our June 16 letter. Accordingly, today we wrote Howard again to reiterate our concerns and renew our demand that the university honor the promises it has made to its faculty and rescind its punishment of Robinson, which is inconsistent with university policy.
Robinson is scheduled to return to teaching in the spring semester, and we sincerely hope that Howard sees the error of its ways and decides before then to abide by university policy and act according to common sense.