Academic Freedom Case at Emory Law School Resolved

The Emory University Faculty Hearing Committee has found that the Emory administration failed to demonstrate adequate cause for dismissing tenured law professor Paul Zwier for his classroom use of the n-word, which, in two letters to the administration, the AAUP had defended as protected speech under principles of academic freedom. 

Zwier initially sought the AAUP’s assistance after he was summarily removed from the classroom in fall 2018 for having using the n-word in a class discussion of a noted civil rights case and for employing it again in a subsequent confrontation with a student. In defending himself against the student’s charge that he was a racist, Zwier stated that his lifelong efforts on behalf of racial equality had resulted, to quote his account, in “other white people in my past accusing me of being an ‘[n-word]-lover.’” The Emory administration initiated dismissal proceedings against Zwier in June 2019.

In a letter of thanks, Zwier’s attorney wrote that he and his client “had relied on” letters from the AAUP and FIRE in supporting their position that “the attempt to terminate Professor Zwier’s tenure was tantamount to an assault on the tenets of academic freedom.” Specifically, he noted, the faculty hearing committee employed the AAUP’s understanding of adequate cause in rejecting the administration’s argument that Professor Zwier’s speech warranted dismissal. The committee also found, he wrote, that the administration’s position that certain words, including the n-word, should be subject to a “complete ban” in the classroom was “incompatible ‘with the premise of academic freedom and pedagogical values.’” The AAUP’s intervention, he stated, was “instrumental” in helping the committee reach its conclusions. 

In a March 3 statement announcing Zwier’s reinstatement, newly appointed Emory law school dean Mary Anne Bobinski wrote, “Emory University is committed to academic freedom, including the ability of faculty members to make pedagogical choices that include addressing controversial topics,” adding, “The university also seeks to promote an inclusive learning environment for all students and to prevent discriminatory harassment.”

In its initial letter to the Emory administration, the AAUP acknowledged that a professor’s freedom of classroom speech was circumscribed by standards of professional ethics, but, citing the Association’s 2007 statement Freedom in the Classroom, it also pointed out that ideas germane to classroom discussion can never be censored only because students might be offended. Doing so “would create a classroom environment inimical to the free and vigorous exchange of ideas necessary for teaching and learning in higher education.” The letter closed by stating that the AAUP regarded “Professor Zwier’s classroom speech on August 23 as an illegitimate ground for dismissal or any other sanction.” In a follow-up letter, the staff reiterated the AAUP’s position: “Our Association views Professor Zwier’s speech as protected under principles of academic freedom, notwithstanding any repercussions of that speech.  Because [the administration’s] dismissal recommendation appears to be founded on Professor Zwiers’s two uses of the n-word, the stated ground for dismissal is impermissible under AAUP-supported principles of academic freedom.” 

Publication Date: 
Monday, March 16, 2020