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The Response to Ratener and the 'Racist' Math Problem

Yesterday’s press release, in which we defended the rights of Professor Peter Ratener at Bellevue Community College (BCC) in Washington State, has sparked some strong reaction. Some of the reactions were fully anticipated, others have been fairly surprising. As readers know, and as was well-covered today in Inside Higher Ed, BCC decided to suspend Ratener for writing a math exam question that involved a person named “Condoleezza” dropping a watermelon from the top of a building.

Unsurprisingly, many readers reacted to FIRE’s conclusion that the apparent reference to a racial stereotype was inadvertent. We carefully researched the case—as we always do—and that was our honest conclusion. It is important to note, however, that this is not just our conclusion: it is also BCC’s conclusion and the conclusion of most of the parties at BCC who were involved in the case. Some readers have responded that to them it seems virtually impossible that this could have been unintentional. I do not think that such a thoughtless error is so inconceivable. Ratener has been teaching math for over 26 years, he uses popular and familiar names in his math problems, and has never previously been accused of any kind of racial insensitivity. Do people make thoughtless mistakes? Of course they do, and in our judgment, after looking at all the facts, we believe this was one such mistake.

That being said, we must be clear that we believe that Ratener’s rights should be defended even if the reference to a stereotype was intentional. BCC is a public college bound by the First Amendment, and to us, the erosion of academic freedom and free speech poses a far greater threat to our society than does an insensitive math problem.

When FIRE has argued this over the years, I have been struck by how many people respond with “So you are saying that there is nothing we can do to fight racist or otherwise ignorant speech?” The answer is “Of course there is something you can do.” The fact that people even ask this question demonstrates to me that we have gotten too far away from the founders’ vision of a society where most decisions are made outside of the halls of official power. For those who believe what Ratener did was truly wrong, it is crucial to understand that the marketplace of ideas and open public discussion worked in this case. When the insensitive question was discovered and made public, two years after it was initially written, Ratener was subjected to ferocious criticism from outside advocates, the board of trustees, his colleagues, bloggers, as well as both national and local organizations. The question was changed and Ratener issued an extensive public apology, in which he said:

I come before you now because you are owed an apology. I made a mistake. An egregious mistake. An exam I wrote contained a question that was deeply offensive and invoked an insulting racial stereotype. To Chelsey Richardson, and other students, I'm very sorry I have offended you. That was not my intention. If you knew me, you'd believe me. You are valued and I want you in our campus community. I also value the wonderful diversity of students here. That is one of the things I like best about teaching at a community college.

To my colleagues at BCC—faculty, staff, and administration—I am sorry that my action has embarrassed you and caused you to become targets for harsh criticism. For more than ten years you have toiled to make BCC an institution that welcomes and values people of all colors. We have some work to do, but still you should be proud of what you've accomplished. You have pulled together despite the strains of all the unfavorable attention, and you've never abandoned me. I am indeed honored to be your colleague.

I also extend my sincere apologies to the African-American community and also to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I sincerely regret insulting you…

In this case sunlight and moral witness worked. He wrote an insensitive question, he was called to the mat, the question was removed and he apologized profusely. This is how we are supposed to handle offensive speech in a free society—with more speech, not official punishment.

The most surprising responses I received, however, were a few e-mails that claimed that—while there may be legitimate First Amendment issues in this case—we should not waste our reputational clout on such trivial matters. To this criticism, I responded:

I believe FIRE’s reputation is our unapologetic defense of principle. Here a professor came to us asking for our help because he was being punished for using an example in a test that offended a student, despite the fact the professor had already taken a public beating, apologized and, changed the question. We were not about to turn him away because critics might argue that he had intentionally engaged in racial stereotyping supposedly unprotected by free speech or academic freedom or because we could have spent our time doing something else.

In FIRE’s history we have defended speech that I would argue is far more offensive than this, where the speech was clearly intentional and where the accused refused to apologize. In fact, you would be hard pressed to name a campus free speech controversy over the past 3 years where we did not comment, help or, at least, offer our help. We are not going to start turning the Professor Rateners of the world away in order to preserve our reputational capital—saving it up only for cases that we deem “safe.” That is the road to arbitrary judgments and partisanship. If we were more cautious we wouldn’t have taken maybe half the cases we have defended over the years—but then again, we wouldn’t be the same FIRE.

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