Free speech group urges KU to exonerate professor who used N-word in class
LAWRENCE — A national free speech group issued a strongly worded message to Kansas University this week about the case of a professor under investigation for discrimination after using the N-word in class.
An article published this week by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), highlights the case of Andrea Quenette, assistant professor of communication studies.
Quenette remains on administrative leave while KU conducts its investigation stemming from complaints by students that she discriminated against them when she used the N-word and made other remarks they considered racially disparaging during a class meeting the day after KU’s Nov. 11, 2015, town hall forum on race. Quenette did not direct the term at any individual; she said she used the word as an example in an educational discussion about racism. After the outcry, Quenette requested and was granted leave for the remainder of the fall semester.
The FIRE article, "What’s at Stake in KU’s Investigation of Professor’s In-Class Comments? Only Academic Freedom as Faculty Know It," says:
The students’ demands for retribution are utterly inimical to academic freedom ... It’s alarming — not to mention ironic—that a group of graduate students has called on the university to punish a professor for constitutionally protected speech when such a reaction would, in turn, decimate the freedoms necessary to pursue their own careers as academics.
FIRE further lays out its case in a direct letter — basically a university version of an amicus, or friend of the court, brief — to KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. Key passage:
The students’ argument that Quenette’s speech constitutes discriminatory harassment unprotected by the First Amendment is profoundly mistaken, and KU must reject it. Quenette’s expression is fully protected by her rights as a professor at a public institution. If KU were to find otherwise, it would undermine any meaningful commitment to academic freedom. Faculty must be free to expose their students to arguments, viewpoints, and ideas with which they may disagree to cultivate an atmosphere of debate and discussion befitting a public university.
As concerned as FIRE appears about the Quenette case, it appears the organization didn’t find it bad enough (or at least not yet) to merit adding KU to its annual list of the “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech,” which also came out this week.
Recall that last year, the entire Kansas Board of Regents did make that not-so-desirable list. The Regents’ offending move, according to FIRE, was its implementation of the statewide social media policy, which did stem from the case of a KU professor’s controversial tweet.