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Saturday, March 09, 2019

Fighting words

There has been controversy this week surrounding Chicago's Geoff Stone using a racial epithet in his First Amendment class to illustrate fighting words (via an anecdote from a class years ago). Inside Higher Ed has a good summary of the controversy, which ends with Stone meeting with a group of students and agreeing not to use the word in class (although not sure what he will replace it with). The catalyst for the controversy was an op-ed in the Chicago Maroon by a white student, who argued that Stone's use of the word was "racist because he, as a white man, repeated a word used by white people to perpetuate the subjugation of black Americans for hundreds of years. He trivialized the word’s history and the lived experience of black students.

Interestingly, the stories focus on Stone using the word in teaching fighting words and why, because of that word, the doctrine remains relevant. But I assume the class reads and discusses Brandenburg, in which the word appears and in which it is essential to figuring out how the Court decided that case.

Finally, if Stone remains correct that the word is appropriate as part of the material and the student/op-ed writer is correct that context matters, I wonder about the classic Chevy Chase-Richard Pryor skit "Job Interview" from first-season Saturday Night Live. It illustrates the point at which we cross into fighting words and the uniqueness of that word among all epithets directed at all groups. Even the 1975 studio audience recognized both points.



Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 9, 2019 at 09:31 AM | Permalink


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