BOSTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts joins with other free-speech advocates and the faculty union in criticizing Brandeis University for reportedly having punished political science professor Donald Hindley for use of the word "wetbacks" in his class. Hindley asserts that he used the term to demonstrate a pejorative word that has been and continues to be used to describe some immigrants to the U.S. The faculty union has condemned the university’s investigation, which failed to provide adequate notice to the professor about the accusations against him, to interview many witnesses, or provide a process for appeal.
The ACLU of Massachusetts supports the right of all students to equal educational opportunity. Severe, pervasive, or targeted harassment of a student based on race, national origin, or ethnicity can interfere with the ability of students to obtain an education and would violate our state and federal civil rights laws. However, incidental comments by a professor in class, even if offensive to some, do not constitute illegal harassment under the law, and imposing punishment on a faculty member for occasional comments significantly jeopardizes freedom of thought and academic freedom which are so integral to a university and the quality of education that students will receive there.
Students plainly have the right to complain about a professor, to raise their complaints with a professor, organize with other students to discuss with the professor their objections, and debate what has gone on. However, faculty members also have the right to a fair process when they have been accused of wrongdoing, and Brandeis appears to have denied that process to Professor Hindley.
We are also troubled by this incident because it comes after several other recent incidents at Brandeis in which the University administration’s initial impulse has been to shut down unpopular expression rather than affirm the principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom which are integral to a university community. For example, the university closed down an exhibit of art by Palestinian children after complaints were made that the exhibit was not "balanced." Later, at the request of Brandeis' president, the university Committee on Exhibitions and Expressions investigated the matter and concluded that removing the exhibit was a mistake. More recently, the university was criticized for placing conditions on a speech by former President Jimmy Carter -- which he rejected -- because of complaints about his use in a book of the word "apartheid" to describe Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Although Carter later was permitted to speak, the incident was troubling in what it revealed about Brandeis's commitment to freedom of expression.
We urge Brandeis to retract the punishment of Professor Hindley and to send two messages to the community: that all students are entitled to receive an education at the university free from unlawful harassment, and that freedom of expression and academic freedom are critical to receiving a good education.