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Princeton Prof. Defends Free Speech Class Cancelled After N-Word Scandal

A large building on the campus of Princeton University, with trees and students in the foreground.

On Monday, an anthropology professor at Princeton canceled a class examining the limits of free speech after students complained about him using the N-word in class. His colleague, the chair of the Anthropology Department, defended his use of offensive speech to instruct his students.

"In the Department of Anthropology, our entire pedagogical mission has never been about reaffirming the political points of view of the day, right or left. Our goal is to get students to move beyond their common sense to see how culture has shaped their beliefs and emotions," Carolyn Rouse, Princeton chair of the Department of Anthropology, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Daily Princetonian. "If our students leave our classes knowing exactly what they knew when they entered, then we didn’t do our jobs."

Rouse was defending Princeton Professor Lawrence Rosen, who taught a course called “Anthropology 212: Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography.” The class centered around freedom of expression and its proper limits, encouraging students to question themselves as to the true roots of their own prejudices on free speech. Rosen sent an email on Monday to inform his students the class had been cancelled.

Students reportedly walked out of the class after Rosen received national attention for using the N-word. The Daily Princetonian reported that Rosen had asked, "What is worse, a white man punching a black man, or a white man calling a black man a n****r?" When challenged on his use of the N-word, Rosen explained that he would use it "if I think it's necessary."

Rouse, the anthropology chair, explained why this kerfuffle cost the students an important lesson in broadening their horizons.

"The students signed up for a course about hate speech, blasphemy, and pornography, so Tuesday’s class introduced them to the topics of the course. Like every semester, at Princeton or Columbia Law, professor Lawrence Rosen started the class by breaking a number of taboos in order to get the students to recognize their emotional response to cultural symbols," Rouse wrote.

Importantly, she added, "By the end of the semester, Rosen hopes that his students will be able to argue why hate speech should or should not be protected using an argument other than 'because it made me feel bad.'"

This is a central goal of all education, going back to Plato's Republic. Students should learn how to defend their arguments with reason rather than resorting to emotional outbursts. In fact, Rosen's very tactic of breaking cultural taboos should be instructive to students — why do they get angry when the professor says this, rather than that?

"Importantly, why did Rosen’s example of a student wiping her feet on the American flag not elicit any anger, while the use of the N-word did? In a different setting — a different university for example — the student response might have been the reverse," Rouse explained. "A student wiping his or her feet on the American flag might have caused a riot."