Editor’s note: Please be aware of a word in James Baldwin’s quote that many deem offensive:
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE, is warning a university in New York City to drop its punishment of a professor whose use of a quote from famed author James Baldwin prompted a student complaint.
The New School, FIRE pointed out, states it is committed “to academic freedom in all forms and for all members of its community.”
But one of its professors, Laurie Sheck, ran into trouble in a class discussion about a 1962 essay by black novelist, playwright and activist James Baldwin
Sheck herself is a poet and novelist who has supervised graduate theses and teaches a graduate course of “radical questioning.”
As part of the course, Sheck assigned students Baldwin’s “The Creative Process” in which he contends Americans have “modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history.”
Baldwin said Americans must commit to “a long look backward whence we came and an unflinching assessment of the record.”
FIRE said that in Sheck’s graduate seminar, the class discussed Baldwin’s statement “I am not your nigger.” Sheck noted how the title of the Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” alters Baldwin’s words. She asked her students what the change may reveal about Americans’ ability to reckon with what Baldwin identified as “the darker forces of history,” FIRE said.
A student challenged the professor, asserting that white people never have permission to say the offensive word.
The student later used a class period to charge the university with racism, even though that was not the subject that was agreed upon ahead of time.
Later, the university notified Sheck of the complaint, without naming who was behind it.
FIRE now has dispatched a letter to New School president David Van Zandt insisting that the university’s investigation of Sheck be dropped.
It argues the professor “prefaces her course with a warning that active engagement with literature involves a sense of unease and unsettlement.”
The foundation noted the Baldwin quote “does not violate the university’s racial discrimination policy. Further, The New School’s policies make clear it will not punish speech protected by the First Amendment and basic tenets of academic freedom.”
The university declined to discuss the issue with FIRE.
“The New School’s 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,” said Will Creeley, FIRE’s senior vice president of legal and public advocacy and author of FIRE’s letter. “To be true to The New School’s history and founding purpose on its centennial anniversary, university leadership must honor Professor Sheck’s right to academic freedom and immediately end this investigation.”
The letter charged the university is threatening freedom of expression, academic freedom and fundamental fairness with its investigation of Sheck, apparently prompted by the student who claimed “she had been taught as an undergraduate that white people cannot say the ‘n-word’ under any circumstances.”
“As a private institution, the New School is not required by the First Amendment to guarantee its students and faculty members academic freedom and freedom of expression. The New School, does, however, have a legal and moral duty to honor the promises and agreements it has voluntarily made,” FIRE said.
“Professor Sheck’s direct quotation of Baldwin was entirely relevant to the question at hand; indeed, the crux of the question Sheck posed to her students concerned Baldwin’s precise language and the impact of its alteration.”
Nor does using the quote “constitute racial discrimination,” FIRE explained. “Sheck’s quotation of Baldwin did not inflict any cognizable injury, nor did it incite an immediate breach of the peace.”
FIRE said, “Initiating a disciplinary investigation into plainly protected expression is itself an affront to the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression, even if no formal penalty is ultimately imposed.”