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The Constitution and Classroom Speech

American 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 epithets.

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.

Published in the Fall 2001 Edition of In Brief

Questions or comments?
Contact Lee Combs @ 480.731.8878

Maricopa Community Colleges
Office of General Counsel
2411 West 14th Street
Tempe, AZ 85281-6942
480.731.8877 / 480.731.8890 fax

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