Planet Princeton

Princeton University professor cancels class on offensive speech and symbols

Lawrence Rosen

A Princeton University professor who used the n-word  in a class on oppressive symbolism, offensive speech, and free speech announced Monday that the course has been canceled.

“I have reluctantly decided to cancel this year’s offering of Anthropology 212,” Rosen wrote to students.

Last week, students walked out of his class after he asked a question using the racial slur. “What is worse, a white man punching a black man, or a white man calling a black man a n_ _ _ _ _ r?” Rosen asked students the question in the class  “Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography.” Some students objected to Rosen’s use of the word, saying that it was offensive and prevented them from learning. They argued with him and then walked out.

The class cancellation was first reported Monday afternoon by the Princeton University Press Club blog The Ink. Princeton University Spokesman Michael Hotchkiss then confirmed to Planet Princeton that Rosen canceled the class.

“The decision to cancel Anthropology 212 for the semester was made by Professor Rosen,” Hotchkiss said. “As we noted in our statement last week, the University will continue to encourage students, faculty and staff to embrace the values of free speech and inclusivity, which are central to our mission and critical to the education we provide to our students.”

Last week, the university also issued a statement about the incident.

“The values of free speech and inclusivity are central to Princeton University’s mission and critical to the education we provide to our students, including in Anthropology 212, ‘Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography’,” reads the statement. “The conversations and disagreements that took place in the seminar led by Professor Rosen on Tuesday afternoon are part of the vigorous engagement and robust debate that are central to what we do. We will continue to look for ways to encourage discussions about free speech and inclusivity with the students in Professor Rosen’s class and the campus community more broadly. As part of those ongoing efforts, we are in the process of setting up a meeting with the students.”

Carolyn Rouse, the chair of the Princeton University Anthropology Department, defended Rosen’s use of the n-word and an editorial in the student newspaper called “In Defense of Rosen” that provided context regarding the class and his remarks.

“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,” Rouse wrote. “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. 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’.”

In the editorial, Rouse asked why Rosen’s example of a student wiping her feet on the American flag did not cause 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,” she wrote. “A student wiping his or her feet on the American flag might have caused a riot. So, whose feelings should the law protect? And why? This is a critical question now before the courts. Should a baker, for instance, be allowed to refuse service to a gay couple because he or she finds homosexuality offensive or blasphemous? For students who would like to be able to answer those questions, for students who are interested in law for example, Rosen’s course helps do just that.”

The course description on the online catalog reads as follows: “Freedom of expression is always limited, both by the harm that may be said to occur if unbridled and by the constraints of the dominant culture. Using such topics as hate speech on campus, the cultural defense plea, the Mapplethorpe exhibit, the Supreme Court opinions on pornography, and the Salman Rushdie affair, we will ask how civility relates to free speech, how codes may channel expression without oppression, and how cultural difference can relate to shared values and orientations.”

Rosen is an anthropologist and a lawyer. His main interests are in the relation between cultural concepts and their implementation in social and legal relationships. His main fieldwork has been in North Africa; he has also worked as an attorney on a number of American Indian legal cases. He is the author of several books, and edited “Other Intentions: Cultural Contexts and the Attribution of Inner States.” He teaches courses on law and anthropology, comparative religious systems, the American Indian and the law, and the theory of cultural systems.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

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