Ban on Banning Words

Washington State U overrules instructor, and says she may not have "blanket" bans on use of certain words or phrases, or punish those who violate such bans with lower grades or failure.

September 1, 2015

Washington State University on Monday announced that it would not allow instructors to make "blanket" bans on the use of certain words or phrases in class, even if those words and phrases offend people. Further, the university said that instructors could not punish students for use of such words or phrases.

The announcement followed a barrage of criticism of the syllabus for Women & Popular Culture, a women's studies course, that banned specific words and phrases and set out punishments for their use.

Here is the language on the syllabus:

"Gross generalizations, stereotypes and derogatory/oppressive language are not acceptable. Use of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, classist or generally offensive language in class or submission of such material will not be tolerated. (This includes 'The Man,' 'Colored People,' 'Illegals/Illegal Aliens,' 'Tranny' and so on -- or referring to women/men as females or males.) If I see it or hear it, I will correct it in class since it can be a learning moment for many students. Repeated use of oppressive and hateful language will be handled accordingly -- including but not limited to removal from the class without attendance or participation points, failure of the assignment, and -- in extreme cases -- failure for the semester."

This summer has seen several instances in which websites of various college or university groups have featured language discouraging the use of words and phrases that many find offensive. There was much discussion in July about the "bias-free language guide" at the University of New Hampshire, but UNH never actually banned any words or phrases. One office published some recommendations for those seeking to avoid offending others, and most people at UNH didn't know that the guide existed until it was debated nationally -- and the university affirmed that there was no requirement to follow its suggestions.

In the Washington State syllabus, however, there was a specific statement that the instructor could punish any students using the banned words and phrases. And that appears to have led the university (which, as a public institution, must provide First Amendment protections) to get involved. The university statement said that it was asking all faculty members to review their policies "to ensure that students’ right to freedom of expression is protected along with a safe and productive learning environment."

The statement said: "Over the weekend, we became aware that some faculty members, in the interest of fostering a constructive climate for discussion, included language in class syllabi that has been interpreted as abridging students’ free speech rights. We are working with these faculty members to clarify, and in some cases modify, course policies to ensure that students’ free speech rights are recognized and protected. No student will have points docked merely as a result of using terms that may be deemed offensive to some. Blanket restriction of the use of certain terms is not consistent with the values upon which this university is founded. Free speech and a constructive climate for learning are not incompatible. We aim to cultivate diversity of expression while protecting individual rights and safety."

Selena Lester Breikss, the instructor, referred questions on her syllabus to the university's public relations office.

Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of the American Association of University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said via email that there are multiple issues at play in the debate over the Washington State syllabus.

"Faculty members have the right to take measures designed to ensure a classroom atmosphere conducive to free and open discussion and debate," Reichman said. And he noted that the syllabus doesn't just ban some words or phrases, but references the value of civilized debate. He pointed with favor to a part of the syllabus that says: "We all have differing opinions, beliefs and practices. The course materials may challenge your personal beliefs or opinions, and this is an open space to discuss these disagreements in a civilized, academic manner."

The problem, Reichman said, is that "blanket bans on specific words or expressions that some may find offensive would seem actually to contradict the true spirit of open and free discussion."

The AAUP opposes speech codes, Reichman said. And while AAUP policy specifically condemns institutional speech codes, he said that "the underlying principle itself should also apply to individual faculty members insofar as the views or words expressed by students in class are relevant to the course material."

He praised Washington State for saying that it was working with faculty members on these issues. "I am confident that the appropriate educational aims of the faculty members involved, and their academic freedom to control curriculum, can and will be consistent with protection of their students' rights to free expression and open debate," he said.

Follow me @ScottJaschik.


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