Princeton professor cancels course on offensive speech after outrage over racial slur
On February 12, 2018, Lawrence Rosen, professor of anthropology at Princeton University, cancelled his sophomore seminar, titled “Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography,” after students protested his use of the n-word by walking out of his class.
Lawrence Rosen is a 76-year-old white Princeton professor, described by the Ivy League university as “one of the foremost legal anthropologists in the United States.” His award-winning work concentrates on Islamic law and cultural assumptions in legal reasoning. He has taught at Princeton for 40 years, and has been a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Rosen officially retired as a full-time faculty member at Princeton in 2017, but continued to teach classes as an emeritus professor.
Destiny Salter is a black student at Princeton and one of the sophomores who walked out of Rosen’s lecture. Together with another student, she filed a formal complaint about the incident. Salter also granted interviews with several media outlets afterward, including the campus newspaper and HuffPost.
Carolyn Rouse is a black professor and chair of the anthropology department at Princeton. She defended Rosen’s comments.
In the Spring semester of 2018, Rosen taught a course titled “Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography,” a sophomore seminar on offensive speech. The course description on the Princeton website began, “Freedom of expression is always limited, both by the harm that may be said to occur if unbridled and by the constraints of the dominant culture.” During a February 6 lecture focused on oppressive symbolism, Rosen asked students, “What is worse, a white man punching a black man, or a white man calling a black man a n—-r?”
After the professor used the the slur twice more, a student asked the professor if he planned to continue using the word. Rosen replied, “Yes, if I think it’s necessary.” Following the exchange, four students walked out of the lecture. Rosen went on to argue with the remaining students that he should not have to apologize for the remark. “I don’t think I need to apologize; I did not oppress anyone,” he said.
One day later, reported The Daily Princetonian, student Destiny Salter filed a complaint against Rosen with Rockefeller College Director of Studies Justine Levine. She was joined in the complaint by a white student from the class.
On February 8, Carolyn Rouse, chair of the anthropology department, submitted a letter to the editor of the Princetonian, titled “In Defense of Rosen.” She asserted that the department’s goal is to get students to “move beyond their common sense” and understand how culture has shaped their opinions. “I feel bad for the students who left the class not trusting the process,” she said. “[Rosen] grew up a Jew in anti-Semitic America, and recognizes how law has afforded him rights he would not otherwise have.” According to Rouse, the experienced professor has used the same example in his class for years without eliciting a response like the one he received this time.
Two other community members also wrote letters to the editor, but they defended the offended students, arguing that the professor’s intentions were irrelevant and that Rosen should not have dismissed his students’ concerns.
Rosen cancels course
Rosen sent an email to his students on February 12, announcing that he had “reluctantly decided to cancel this year’s offering of Anthropology 212.” According to university spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss, Princeton had not pressured Rosen to take this action.
Prepared by Jesus Rodriguez ’19
Uploaded March 21, 2018