Is racially charged language ever appropriate for college classrooms?

Justin Tolston holds a sign at an August 2018 “unity rally” demanding Emory University law school professor Paul Zwier be fired for using a racially-charged epithet in his class during a discussion about a discrimination case. Zwier has since apologized for the use of the word. ERIC STIRGUS / ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM

Justin Tolston holds a sign at an August 2018 “unity rally” demanding Emory University law school professor Paul Zwier be fired for using a racially-charged epithet in his class during a discussion about a discrimination case. Zwier has since apologized for the use of the word. ERIC STIRGUS / ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM

Emory University adjunct law school professor Robert Saunooke said he tells students before the start of his first class that there are words and phrases he’ll use that might be uncomfortable.

In his Sept. 9 class, during a discussion about discrimination against Native Americans, Saunooke said he uttered the phrases “sand (n-word)” and “red (n-word).”

A student complained and Saunooke, who said he is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, apologized.

That incident, an n-word utterance later that day by another adjunct law school professor, and a tenured Emory law school professor who used the word twice last year have resulted in Emory conducting several ongoing investigations into whether the faculty members violated university guidelines.

> RELATED: Emory professor investigated for using racial epithet again

The situations have renewed a debate that has occurred on college campuses across the country about the appropriateness of professors using racially charged language in the classroom. Some groups say these words are part of the frank discussions necessary in college classes and protected under constitutional guidelines of free speech and expression. Others, particularly students, find such language disturbing and have asked administrators to act.

In the last year, schools such as Princeton University and The New School, a private university with its main campus in New York City, have faced backlash over faculty using the epithet. A white Princeton professor canceled a course in response to criticism for using the word during a class on hate speech. The New School last month dropped its investigation of a white professor who used the epithet quoting the late black writer James Baldwin.

Policing classroom language

Emory has scheduled a hearing in early October to determine whether to discipline or dismiss Paul Zwier, the professor who used the racial epithet twice — once in a class to discuss a discrimination court case and again in a meeting with a student who was not in his class. Some free speech and academic organizations have sided with Zwier, who is white, saying he should be protected by academic freedom traditionally afforded professors.

The main sign leading to Emory University’s campus in Atlanta’s Druid Hills neighborhood. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

icon to expand image

Emory, a private university with more than 15,000 students, released statements about the incidents and answered questions via email. The university shared campus policies, one updated days after the first use of the n-word by Zwier, stating prohibited behavior by faculty and students “may include epithets” that “serve no scholarly purpose.”

The university has declined to identify the third faculty member it’s investigating. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed Saunooke on Monday after he did an interview with another publication. Emory officials said Wednesday that additional training will be held this year and will now include adjunct faculty members.

Few colleges and universities have policies detailing if and how faculty members should use such language, according to professors and others interviewed by the AJC. Georgia’s largest public university system is bound by First Amendment laws granting freedom of speech, a spokeswoman said. Several court cases have ruled in favor of faculty when they’ve used the n-word, typically while reciting a work of literature.

> RELATED: Free speech battles on college campuses is hot issue

Still, the n-word and variations of it, while used by some African Americans in music, movies, books or even in a familial tone, can be alarming and hurtful to many students.

Emory Black Law School Association president Enu Mkparu wrote a letter to classmates, faculty and administrators last week after Saunooke’s use of the epithet, saying how “emotionally fatiguing the incidents of last year were and why it is particularly important to be mindful of the use of racially derogatory slurs.” Emails sent by the AJC to Mkparu were not returned.

Zwier, hired by Emory in 2003, was criticized for using the epithet in August 2018 while discussing a 1967 case about an African-American man who was told "a Negro could not be served" at an event. Zwier asked a student while discussing more facts about the case if the man was called the n-word, according to the university.

Emory University professor Paul Zwier. EMORY UNIVERSITY

icon to expand image

About two months later, Zwier used the n-word again in his office with a then student who accused him of being a racist. Zwier has said he told a story about a white racist who accused him of being a n-word “lover” because of his views on race. The student told administrators and Zwier was put on paid leave during a new investigation.

Language as a learning tool

Zwier’s attorney, Lee Parks, said in an interview that Emory is not treating the professor fairly.

“He used the word as a teaching mechanism,” Parks said.

Parks calls this “a case of national importance.” The American Association of University Professors wrote Emory’s president in May at Zwier’s request asking her not to discipline or dismiss him.

“Professor Zwier’s classroom speech was germane to the subject matter and accordant with standards of professional ethics,” wrote Gregory Scholtz, the association’s director of academic freedom, tenure and governance.

Another group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is also on Zwier's side, writing to the school that the professor should be protected by academic freedom. It argued that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, an Emory professor, used the epithet during a 2008 NPR radio interview discussing an incident where his son was bullied by classmates for Carter's position on race.

For law school students, hearing such language might be painful, but it’s necessary, said Nico Perrino, the foundation’s spokesman wrote last year about the Zwier case on its website.

“How does avoiding certain words or content help a student confront the words or content if they might encounter them sometime during the course of their career?” Perrino said.

Many undergraduate Emory students were unaware of the investigation of Zwier. Emory senior Rory Abrams, 21, a psychology major, recalled some details. It was briefly a hot topic on Facebook and other social media platforms, Abrams said.

Abrams, who is African American, said he’s been in a few classes where the professor will issue a “trigger warning” before showing or discussing something that could be disturbing or offensive.

Georgia native Shaun Harper, founder and executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, said many faculty members don’t issue such warnings and he’s unaware of administrators who recommend it, he said.

Harper warns students about potentially sensitive situations after a 2005 incident where he showed, without warning, a rape scene from a movie. A female student, who said she had been sexually assaulted, approached him afterward and said she felt uncomfortable. Harper said he apologized.

Shaun Harper is the founder and executive director of the University of Southern California s Race and Equity Center. PHOTO CREDIT: USC

icon to expand image

“I learned from that experience,” Harper, who is African American, said in a telephone interview.

The n-word, Harper said, is still an uncomfortable term for many on campus. He believes it’s appropriate for faculty members to use the word if quoting from published materials. Harper wrote a paper in 2009 with the beginning of the title “(N words) No More.” Many white faculty members, he said, don’t discuss the paper with him.

“I think they don’t know how to talk to me about it,” he said.

Saunooke told the AJC the upside from the controversy is there is more discussion about the use of epithets in the classroom. Saunooke, who said he began teaching at Emory four years ago, said no students previously confronted him about using such language in class. He said he won’t change his teaching philosophy, and may use such language again if appropriate to discuss discrimination against Native Americans.

“This is my story and I can’t filter my story,” he said.

College campuses and faculty speech

Colleges have some rules concerning what professors can say in the classroom and on campus, but there have been disputes in Georgia and across the country between faculty members and administrators about those guidelines. Most policies do not address the use of racially-charged language, experts say. The University System of Georgia’s policy for its 26 public schools is guided by First Amendment rights to free speech. Private universities such as Emory generally have the same rules, but its policy prohibits behavior by faculty and students that “may include epithets” that “serve no scholarly purpose.”