Race, Free Speech, and the Purge of Campus Blasphemers

At a New York City college, a professor is dismissed shortly after using the N-word in an academic discussion of Mark Twain.

A few years ago, while writing a book about college teaching, I asked several colleagues to list the qualities of a good teacher. Many people replied that the best instructors were “reflexive”: they constantly examined their own practices and encouraged students to do the same. Tell that to Hannah Berliner Fischthal, the adjunct professor at St. John’s University in New York who was fired last month after using the N-word in a Zoom class about Mark Twain. She tried to be reflexive about it, explaining her decision to the students and leading conversations about it afterward.

But reflexivity only works if we protect the freedom to engage in it. And that freedom has disappeared, at least when it comes to questions of race.

There’s no other way to interpret the dismissal of Fischthal, who joined a long list of professors across the country who have been dismissed or disciplined for using the N-word in classroom contexts. At the University of Southern California, one professor was even placed on leave last year for repeatedly saying a Chinese filler word that sounded like the N-word.

Fischthal, meanwhile, said the N-word once—that’s right, a single time—in a class discussion of Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, where the word appears repeatedly. As Fischthal told her class, Twain was one of the first writers to reproduce the way Americans really spoke—slurs and all. He sought to satirize racism, she added, not to reinforce it. (Fischtal’s course was called “The Literature of Satire,” after all.) And she hoped her remarks about the N-word would not offend anyone.

No such luck. The following day, she received an email from a student who said she had to leave the Zoom class after Fischthal said the word. “It was unnecessary and very painful to hear,” the student wrote.

Fischthal told the student she was sorry, then sent a message to the class inviting online comments. “I apologize if I made anyone uncomfortable in the class by using a slur when quoting from and discussing the text,” she wrote. “Please do share your thoughts.”

Of the six students who responded, including the original complainant, two defended Fischthal and the rest said she should not have used the N-word. She also led a second discussion of the issue at the next class meeting over Zoom.

My strong guess is that students learned a huge amount from these exchanges. Surely, there are solid arguments for avoiding the N-word, regardless of circumstances. But there are also reasonable defenses for employing the term in class, as Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy—a leading Black legal scholar—has asserted. It’s complicated.

The firing of Hannah Fischthal sends the opposite message: It’s simple. There is nothing to discuss here; instead, there is one right answer. And woe to anyone who gets on the wrong side of it.

Nobody has asserted that Fischthal directed the N-word at students or sought to harm them in any way. She was apparently fired just for uttering the term, like people punished in earlier eras for taking the name of God in vain. She is a modern-day blasphemer. We must banish her from our midst.

That condescends to our students, all in the guise of protecting them. If you flatly prohibit a controversial term—even in academic discussions of it—you’re implying that some people aren’t resilient enough to hear it. And, most of all, you’re preventing them from learning more about it.

Last month, the New York Times published the full slur in an article analyzing its history. Using a stand-in for the term would have made the article’s claims “incomprehensible,” two Times editors explained. “We wanted to present our readers with this argument in the clearest and most respectful way,” the New York Times editors wrote.

That was not a respect that St. John’s accorded to Hannah Fischthal, who taught there for 20 years. A university spokesman said her use of the N-word wasn’t the reason she was fired, but the timing of her dismissal makes that hard to believe. Called to the university’s Human Resources office, Fischthal was asked about the N-word incident as well as a remark she allegedly made about a Black student’s hair. She said she commented on the student’s head wrap, not her hair. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Fischthal said that the HR office also criticized remarks she made in class about her family’s experience during that traumatic time.

Fischthal is an adjunct professor, which means she doesn’t have the same rights as a tenured faculty member does. About three-quarters of American professors are so-called “contract” faculty: that is, they’re not on the tenure track. Most of them have “little job security” and “few protections for academic freedom,” as the American Association of University Professors reported in 2018.

An accomplished Yiddish translator and textbook author, Fischthal has also published essays about Bernard Malamud, Ellie Wiesel, and other Jewish-American writers. Her “Rate My Professor” page—an unscientific source, to be sure, but a reasonable gauge of a professor’s popularity—suggests that she was also beloved by her students, who overwhelmingly praised her enthusiasm and kindness (and, it should be said, her easy grading). One of the only negative comments reported that she “tended to confuse the black girls with each other” and call them by the wrong names. “I don’t think it’s intentional obviously,” the student wrote, “but it’s a little annoying.”

Did that contribute to the decision to fire Hannah Fischthal? We don’t know because St. John’s isn’t talking. A university official declined my request for an interview, saying only that “there is more to this matter” than the N-word incident, but that it was the university’s policy “not to discuss publicly or otherwise disclose personnel matters pertaining to current or former employees.”

Nor did the Times or any other mainstream news outlet report on the story. The only paper that picked it up was the right-wing New York Post ,which speaks volumes in its own right. I reached out to Fischthal, to learn more about what happened, but she didn’t reply. I can’t say I blame her. She has good reason to suspect liberals like me, who have largely abandoned the defense of racial blasphemers like her.

Never mind Fischthal’s record of scholarship or her two decades of apparently successful service to her institution. She said a bad word, and someone in the class was offended. That’s all we need to know.

But on those grounds, you could dismiss any teacher for pretty much anything. Heck, maybe I should be fired for this column. I have tenure, so it would be harder to dump me than Hannah Fischthal. But nothing is impossible when you’re hunting for blasphemers.

So purge me, too! And, while you’re at it, get rid of anyone who says words you don’t like. That’s the oldest reflex of all: the will to censor. I just wish we could all be a bit more reflexive about it, especially right now.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of  The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is the co-author (with Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech, And Why You Should Give a Damn, which will be published in the spring by City of Light Press.