Constitution and Classroom Speech
courts have long championed the cause of academic freedom in classroom
speech cases. When the content of classroom speech is racially- or ethnically-charged--or
constitutes sexual harassment--it may threaten the rights of students
to learn in an environment free from unlawful discrimination.
When does what a professor says in the classroom lose free speech protections,
and become instead an act of unlawful discrimination?
Two recent cases out of the community college system may provide some
guidance in reconciling this apparent tension. Both arose out of student
complaints over hostile environment speech in the classroom; but the difference
in the outcomes could serve to enlighten faculty and administrators.
John Bonnell's use of sexually-charged speech in the classroom made him
a controversial instructor at Macomb Community College in Michigan. He
admitted to using vulgar expressions to describe sexual intercourse in
his English Language and Literature classes. Following the receipt of
several student complaints, the college administration suspended Bonnell
pending an investigation.
In Bonnell v. Lorenzo,the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
held that, while Bonnell had the right to use obscene words, "he
does not have a constitutional right to use them in a classroom setting
where they are not germane to the subject matter, in contravention to
the College's sexual harassment policy. . . . "Although we do not
wish to chill speech in the classroom setting, especially in the unique
milieu of a college or university where debate and the clash of viewpoints
are encouraged--if not necessary--to spur intellectual growth, it has
long been held that despite the sanctity of the First Amendment, speech
that is vulgar or profane is not entitled to absolute constitutional protection."
The same court, however, defended an instructor's classroom speech in
Hardy v. Jefferson Community College. One student at that Kentucky
school complained when Hardy--teaching a class entitled "Introduction
to Interpersonal Communication"--employed several racist and sexist
The use of the words, however, was in the context of what the Court described
as "discussion and analysis of words that have historically served
the interests of the dominant culturein which they arise."
When Hardy's teaching contract claiming that the decision violated his
First Amendment rights.
The Sixth Circuit rejected the college's claim that "teachers have
no First Amendment rights when teaching" and found no fault in Hardy's
classroom utterances. Noting what it termed "the robust tradition
of academic freedom in our nation's post-secondary schools," the
Court observed that the "discussion of the offensive words was limited
to a single lecture," and that all of the students "but the
one in question provided positive feedback on his classroom instruction."
Both Bonnell and Hardy used objectionable language in their respective
classrooms; the distinction, however, lies in the degree to which the
language was germane to the subject matter. Such a distinction can guide
educators in determining the limits of classroom speech.
in the Fall 2001 Edition of In Brief