Disapprovingly using the N-word is not the same as calling a black person the n-word. But colleges — and many progressives — don’t seem to grasp this basic fact. Inside Higher Ed reports on what happened when a professor compared the N-word to another derogatory term, and actually said the full N-word while doing so:
Instead of teaching, he will take OU’s program in culturally competent communication and meet in individual sessions with the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion."
But using the N-word this way is not misconduct or a civil rights violation. Indeed, the federal appeals court in Cincinnati once ruled that an instructor had the First Amendment right to use the N-word. In Hardy v. Jefferson Community College (2001), it ruled that an instructor could not be terminated just for using the full N-word to discuss how it was historically used to promote racism.
But journalism students at the University of Oklahoma were unable to handle any exposure to the N-word. As The Oklahoman reported:
"Students met with leadership from Gaylord College and the OU administration. Many of the students requested Gade be replaced with another professor for the rest of the semester. Some refused to return to the class if Gade remained.
Gade was teaching a Journalism, Ethics and Democracy class on Tuesday when he said the full N-word while complaining about the term 'boomer.' The professor said the phrase 'OK, boomer,' which young people use to mock older generations, was similarly offensive as the racial slur.
Gade apologized to his students in an email Tuesday evening."
These journalism students’ emotional reaction calls into question their fitness to be journalists. If they can’t handle fleeting exposure to unpleasant words like the N-word, then they will be unable to do their job as journalists. Journalists get exposed to the full N-word in the course of their jobs, such as in reporting on court rulings that use the full N-word. For example, journalists reported on the federal appeals court ruling in Savage v. Maryland (2018). It dismissed a racial harassment lawsuit by a black police officer, alleging that a county prosecutor unnecessarily read “aloud, at a trial preparation meeting, potential evidence in the form of letters containing racial epithets.” The court’s ruling contains “n****r” and the slang "n***a."
Similarly, the federal appeals court in Denver dismissed a racial harassment lawsuit by a black employee in Bolden v. PRC, Inc. (1995). The court’s ruling in that case uses the full N-word three times, as well as other racial slurs like “honky.” I have emailed that court ruling to journalists in the past, in discussing with them what sorts of uses of the N-word do or do not constitute racial harassment under federal law.
To ban the full N-word, we would have to ban books. The word appears in the title of books written by African-Americans, such as N****r: An Autobiography by Dick Gregory. The full N-word also is used repeatedly in Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
But we are slowly moving toward such a ban. The Montgomery County Schools eliminated a lesson plan designed to prepare students to read Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird. School officials said it offended parents by using a racial slur — the N-word — in order to prepare students to read the book, which contains the word.
Hypersensitive people want to ban the word, even when it is used in ways not intended to degrade African-Americans. As the lawyer Wendy Kaminer, a former ACLU board member, notes, “When I quoted the word ‘n****r’ instead of referencing it by an initial during a [college] panel on free speech while discussing Huck Finn, I was accused of committing an act of racial violence.” She was using the word to discuss censorship and free-speech controversies, not to insult black people. So much for academic freedom.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed in Towne v. Eisner (1918) that “a word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.” Court rulings under the First Amendment recognize this fact. There are no forbidden words that the government can ban regardless of the circumstances in which they are used.
But this doesn’t matter to some civil-rights officials. They don’t care about the First Amendment, and would like to redefine use of the N-word as racial harassment, even when minorities use it. The Chairwoman of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission wrote a letter to the editor in the January 4, 2007 issue of Time Magazine, denouncing a column by black writer John Ridley about uses of the “N” word. “We will continue our efforts to eradicate the harmful slur from the workplace — forever,” she wrote.
Banning the word was beyond her authority under the civil-rights laws, and raised grave First Amendment issues. But that did not matter to her, given her emotional reaction to the word. Nor does the First Amendment matter to some other civil-rights officials, who have ignored Supreme Court precedent in defending a blatantly unconstitutional Connecticut law used to prosecute students for using the N-word, and in stretching the meaning of “discriminatory harassment” to cover remarks that judges have said don’t legally constitute discriminatory harassment.
Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on Liberty Unyielding.