PULLMAN – Three Washington State University instructors are being accused of violating students’ First Amendment rights by banning terms such as “illegal alien,” “male” and “female” in the classroom.
Students were told they would risk losing points or failing a class if they repeatedly use terms deemed oppressive or hateful in discussions or assignments. The instructors – one professor and two doctorate students in WSU’s Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies – outlined their policies in course syllabi.
The conservative blog Campus Reform blasted the instructors’ policies in an opinion piece Saturday morning, prompting at least a dozen other outlets to do the same. The university responded on Monday with an emailed statement to students and staff.
“We are working with these faculty members to clarify, and in some cases modify, course policies to ensure that students’ free speech rights are recognized and protected,” the statement said. “No student will have points docked merely as a result of using terms that may be deemed offensive to some.”
Critics took issue with Selena Lester Breikss’ policy attempting to bar students from using terms such as “The Man,” “colored people,” “illegals,” “illegal aliens” and “tranny.” Breikss, who teaches the 300-level course Women and Popular Culture, also tried banning the use of “male” and “female” to describe men and women, according to the syllabus on her course website.
“Repeated use of oppressive and hateful language will be handled accordingly – including but not limited to removal from the class without attendance or participation points, failure of the assignment, and – in extreme cases – failure for the semester,” the syllabus said.
Similarly, Rebecca Fowler told her students they would lose one point each time they use “illegal” to describe an immigrant, rather than the preferred term “undocumented,” in their writing.
Fowler’s 101 course Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies aims to help students “understand the ways in which socio-historical constructions of race and ethnicity have worked to produce racial differences” and “recognize how white privilege functions in everyday social structures and institutions,” according to the syllabus.
Professor John Streamas told students in his 200-level Introduction to Multicultural Literature class to reflect “your grasp of history and social relations by respecting shy and quiet classmates, and by deferring to the experiences of people of color,” the syllabus said.
To illustrate the concept of racist terminology, Streamas wrote, “Insensitive whites such as Glenn Beck complain that, for example, they are not allowed to say the ‘n’ word without being labeled racist but that black men use it among themselves all the time. To ‘earn’ the right to that word, Beck must first endure 500 years of racism.”
Campus Reform noted that Streamas in 2006 called a white member of WSU’s College Republicans a vulgar, racially charged term during a demonstration in support of right-leaning immigration policies that included a large fence in the center of campus.
Streamas at the time said he regretted using the term but maintained that the demonstration was racist and offensive.
A university investigation determined that the student was not subjected to harassment, in part, because Streamas immediately apologized. The investigation did, however, say Streamas engaged in “immature, intellectually unsophisticated and thoughtless conduct” unbecoming of any WSU employee.
Breikss and Fowler declined to comment, and an email sent to Streamas Monday was not returned.
The university’s statement said administrators “are asking all faculty members to take a moment to review their course policies to ensure that students’ right to freedom of expression is protected along with a safe and productive learning environment.”
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