Laurie Sheck, a professor at The New School in New York City, is facing the prospect of punishment for using the N-word — in a quote from the work of writer James Baldwin — during a graduate-level class discussion. Sheck is currently the subject of an ongoing investigation under the school’s discrimination policy after a white student lodged a complaint about her use of language in class. That investigation prompted a letter from FIRE.
In a statement Friday, PEN America’s project director for campus free speech, Jonathan Friedman, rightly pointed out the “distinction to be made between a racial slur wielded against someone and a quote used for pedagogical purposes,” noting:
Some words are so heinous that one can never expect to say them without some risk of offense. 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.
NCAC also drew attention to the case:
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) pointed out that Sheck’s quotation of Baldwin does not violate the university’s racial discrimination policy. The organization has called on The New School to immediately drop its investigation, stating that the “misguided investigation warns faculty and students that good-faith engagement with difficult political, social, and academic questions will result in investigation and possible discipline — even when those same questions are being widely discussed by other commentators online and in the media.”
FIRE is glad to see our allies bring further attention to this case.
The New School must do the right thing by dropping its investigation into Sheck for what is clearly a protected exercise of academic freedom.