Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis addresses attendees on day one of the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando. (Photo by Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Russia recently enacted a law mandating up to 15 years in prison for anyone spreading “false information” about its invasion of Ukraine. It has also prohibited using the term invasion—or war—to describe the conflict, which authorities prefer to call a “special military operation.”

Closer to home, dozens of GOP-led state legislatures are considering or have passed measures limiting school and university instruction about race and sexuality. Most notoriously, Florida’s recently enacted “Don’t Say Gay” law bars classroom discussions of sexuality and gender identity in public primary schools. Several other states have restricted discussions of the 1619 Project and critical race theory, which have become touchstones for Republican censors. Laws increasing penalties for public protestors are proliferating, too.

You would think that these authoritarian impulses would make my fellow liberals cringe. And you would also think that American universities would be more solicitous of dissenting or offensive speech than your average Tallahassee legislator. But you would be wrong. With one infelicitous phrase, a professor’s career can spiral toward destruction. This is not new, but it often feels like it’s getting worse.

Witness the fate of the psychiatrist Jeffrey Lieberman, who was suspended last month by Columbia University and terminated from his post as chief of psychiatric services at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. His transgression was a single imprudent tweet about a minor celebrity. “Whether a work of art or a freak of nature she’s a beautiful sight to behold,” Lieberman wrote, extolling the South Sudanese model Nyakim Gatwech. Lieberman was commenting on a tweet that described Gatwech as the darkest-skinned person on the planet, according to Guinness World Records. In fact, there is no such measurement, from Guinness or anyone else. Even an Ivy League professor can be duped by bad information.

Amid a tsunami of social media outrage, a familiar ritual played out. Lieberman issued an apology. His tweet was “sexist and racist,” Lieberman wrote, reflecting “prejudices and stereotypical assumptions.” But in our current moment, saying you’re sorry is rarely enough. 

Writing in The New York Times, Lieberman’s Columbia colleague John McWhorter, a linguistics professor, noted that “freak of nature”—the part of the tweet causing the most fury—was offered in praise and that the term is not always used as a pejorative. Yes, the phrase conjures a hateful history of objectifying and reviling Black female bodies, and Lieberman shouldn’t have used it, as McWhorter, who is Black, acknowledged. As is often the case when there’s a racial imbroglio of this type, McWhorter used his considerable platform to urge calm and reflection rather than dismissal and ostracism. I agree. Given the laudatory tone of the tweet, it’s absurd to imagine that Lieberman was demeaning Gatwech. Instead, he seemed to be saying that she’s hot.

To be clear, he shouldn’t have said that, either. Like Lieberman, I’m a senior professor at a major research university. I would never go online and comment on a famous woman’s appearance. I wouldn’t want my own students, male or female, to think that I was judging them on the same basis. But that’s a judgment call, not a statute. With Oscar season upon us, plenty of academics will be posting about Hollywood stars. Do we want to scrutinize their language to see if it’s too suggestive?

At the same time, the painful, troubling discussion over the use of racial epithets—not as a hurled insult but as a subject for classroom discussion—remains as poisonous as ever. This is to be expected when it comes to the N-word, which has the largest megatonnage of any prejudicial insult in the English language. Even in a classroom setting and with no detectible racial animus, professors who have breached the current academic consensus against examining the N-word and other racial and sexual epithets find themselves reeling. As the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy detailed in his 2002 book on the term, which used the full six-letter word in its title, Americans have used the N-word to satirize racism (think Mark Twain or Richard Pryor) as well as to reinforce it. In a recent article, Kennedy and Eugene Volokh, also a law professor, argued that faculty members should be allowed to use the N-word and other slurs in the interest of accuracy. Omitting them “sends the message to students that they should talk around offensive facts, rather than confronting them fairly,” Kennedy and Volokh wrote.

Kennedy is Black. Born in South Carolina in 1954, on the eve of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he and his family did not have the luxury of an academic discussion of epithets. They endured the N-word and the systemic racism of Jim Crow that gave the slur its power. In a personal addendum to his article with Volokh, Kennedy acknowledged that “racism suffuses American life” and “vigilance is essential” in challenging it. “But so, too, is a capacity and willingness to draw crucial distinctions,” he added. “There is a world of difference that separates the racist or anti-gay uses of the slurs from vocalizing them for pedagogical reasons aimed at enabling students to gain essential knowledge.”

But that’s precisely the distinction that gets lost when liberal academics forsake academic freedom, which used to be one of our defining principles. Consider the sad tale of Phillip Adamo, a historian at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, who got pushed out of his job for leading a discussion in an honors seminar (called, ironically, “The Scholar Citizen”) about whether it was appropriate to use the N-word in class. 

The debate started when one of Adamo’s students read a passage aloud from an assigned text in the class, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls n—-r.”  (Baldwin uses the full, unexpurgated word in the book.) Adamo then shared with the class two essays about the politics of the N-word, including one from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has written for this magazine. Although the term has a hateful history in the mouths of white people, Coates noted, African Americans have made it their own. They shouldn’t shy away from it to assuage white fear and guilt. Quite reasonably, other prominent voices such as Al Sharpton have argued that speakers, Black or white, should never use it. 

At the next meeting of Adamo’s class, where the debate about the N-word continued, several students who weren’t taking the course secretly recorded his comments and posted them online. When the recording became public, Adamo was flayed by colleagues and students. Three professors wrote a letter to the campus newspaper, claiming that Adamo had “harmed” minority students by his examination of the N-word. Then Augsburg suspended Adamo, who went on medical leave and later resigned.

“We know the work of fostering an inclusive learning environment is ongoing,” Augsburg President Paul C. Pribbenow declared, addressing the controversy. “We will acknowledge and engage the topic, not shrink from it, and work together to make the university better.”

That would be funny if it weren’t so disingenuous. The sordid but by now familiar episode taught the opposite lesson: Don’t engage difficult questions around race unless you’re willing to sacrifice your job. 

Sandra Sellers and David Batson learned this the hard way when their words were caught on camera in the moments after an online class. Adjunct law professors at Georgetown University, they bemoaned the low academic achievement of Black students at the school. “I hate to say this,” Sellers told Batson, unaware that she was still being recorded. “I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks … You get some really good ones. But there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.”

Calling Sellers’s remarks “abhorrent,” Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor fired her. Meanwhile, Batson was placed on administrative leave—and later resigned—for what he did not say. In a letter to the dean, he wrote that he had “missed the chance to respond in a more direct manner to address the inappropriate content” of Sellers’s remarks.

But what precisely is inappropriate about her remarks? Sellers did not say that Black students were inherently less able or intelligent. Instead, she said that—as a group—they don’t achieve as highly as other students. 

The data suggests that this is not a fabricated slur but a genuine problem in American law schools. According to nationwide figures appearing in a 2005 Stanford Law Review article, African Americans in U.S. law schools got lower grades than other racial groups. A 2015 study of two law schools found that Black students with similar college grades and standardized test scores still received worse law school grades than their non-Black peers.

As we applaud the increase in the numbers of Blacks and other minorities joining the bar, we’d be remiss not to examine the possible causes for any disparity in law school performance. Is it unequal opportunity or preparation? Are they being graded unfairly? Might their lower grades reflect negative stereotypes—which have been shown to hamper minorities’ academic performance—or the bias of their professors, which some might see in the comments of the now-departed professors? But if we can’t discuss the problem honestly and openly, we won’t solve it. Had Sellers said that most of her Black students received poorer grades than other groups and that the university needed to do more to assist them, she probably would have survived the leaked Zoom call. But a professor shouldn’t have to speak with the precision of a diplomat to keep her job. We all learn less when we can’t say what’s on our minds. 

That’s what censorship does. It prevents us from addressing social problems and making progress. Of course, well-intentioned censors say the opposite, insisting that speech codes and guidelines will make it easier to communicate our differences. But they are wrong, and everyone who believes in the university should raise their voices against them.

We need to find common ground here. Of course, faculty and students should be allowed to denounce Jeffrey Lieberman’s salacious tweet: Calling out offensive speech is an act of free speech, too, and it must be protected. No one should be intimidated for fear of being called “woke.” Likewise, anyone should be free to criticize a professor’s fraught choice to use classroom time to examine the use of the N-word, a complex decision with many angles and one that deserves the most careful consideration. But teachers who choose to use the N-word in academic contexts shouldn’t be pushed out to safeguard students’ feelings. That patronizes the students, all in the guise of protecting them. 

It also echoes Republican state lawmakers, who represent the greatest threat to free speech right now. In its zeal to rewrite history, Florida on Thursday passed a ban on instruction that causes students to feel “discomfort” over historical events committed by persons of their race. This is insane. Anyone who wants to understand essential elements of American history, from slavery to Jim Crow to the subjugation of Native Americans, is bound to feel “discomfort,” whether their ancestors were holding the lash or not. The wave of speech restrictions coming out of red states is truly frightening. And unlike the often myopic decisions on campus, the state measures have the force of law. 

It’s up to Floridians and other red-state voters to stop the crazy train. And it’s up to university administrators, deans, and other officials to stiffen their spines and protect speech at their institutions, especially when the roar of the crowd feels intolerable. At my university, the law professor Amy Wax is perennially under fire for comments that most fair-minded observers consider racist. Her recent insistence that Asian immigration to the U.S. should be limited, in part because “the spirit of liberty” doesn’t “beat in [the] breast” of Asians, was as ignorant as it was ugly. (See Hong Kong protests, Tiananmen Square, etc.) But the university hasn’t canned Wax, who is tenured, and I’ve written before that I’m glad it hasn’t. Defending racist, insensitive, or ignorant speech isn’t easy, but it is necessary. The alternative is a university where we are all looking over our shoulders, worrying about whether we said the wrong thing.

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 was published last year by City of Light Press.