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San Diego State University is being both excoriated and supported for its decision last week to reassign a teacher who made racial slurs during lectures to illustrate a point about language.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based civil rights group, told SDSU in an email Tuesday that the action it took against philosophy Professor J. Angelo Corlett violated his First Amendment rights to free speech.

FIRE asked the university to immediately reinstate Corlett and indicated that it might take legal action if SDSU declined to do so.

The move came as SDSU’s Associated Students was circulating a statement that says, in part, “We support the University and College of Arts and Letters’ decision to reassign Corlett.

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“This repeated behavior is not only disturbing to hear of, but the continuous usage of racial epithets and derogatory references to sexual violence at the expense of student wellbeing is unacceptable on our campus.”

A petition also was posted on Change.org, calling for Corlett to step down from teaching and for the faculty to formally and publicly condemn his actions. More than 200 people had signed it through 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Much of the activity came after the Union-Tribune reported on Sunday that Corlett, who has tenure, was relieved of his duties teaching separate courses on critical thinking and race and racism.

Days earlier, an unidentified Black student who was not registered in Corlett’s critical thinking class showed up and challenged his recent use of racial epithets in lectures.

Corlett had projected an informational slide in two courses that listed 10 to 12 slurs that have been used against Black, Hispanic, Latino, Asian and White people.

He said that he had to use the specific words to explain why they are racist and should not be used.

“Some students are confused about what counts as racism,” said Corlett, a 63-year-old Latino who said he has been using this technique for years at SDSU.

He repeated the words again when confronted by the student.

The Associated Students statement says students in the critical thinking class reported that Corlett had used a specific slur against Black people “over 60 times” and repeatedly used the words rape and gang rape in reference to sexual violence.

The statement also said the students claimed that Corlett said he “would only be fired if he “r*ped or killed a student.”

Corlett told the Union-Tribune Wednesday that he did not say he couldn’t be fired. Instead, he said he explained how academic freedom gives him the right to use provocative language. He added that he used racial epithets roughly 12 times during the class in which the visiting student challenged what he was doing.

SDSU subsequently relieved Corlett of his responsibility for teaching the two classes, but allowed him to continue with a third, political philosophy class.

“We have had a number of students who have come forward and who’ve complained about their experience in Professor Corlett’s classes,” Luke Wood, SDSU’s vice president for student affairs and campus diversity, said over the weekend.

“This was about actions, not about freedom of expression.”

FIRE disagreed, saying in its letter to SDSU that, “The academic freedom protected by the First Amendment and promised by SDSU grants faculty members like Professor Corlett substantial breathing room to determine how to approach subjects and materials relevant to their courses. Such matters must be a question left for the faculty member in the classroom—not the administrator, donor, legislator, or other outside authorities …

“Be advised that FIRE is committed to using all of the resources at its disposal to see this matter to a just conclusion.”

FIRE was founded in 1998 by Alan Charles Kors, a University of Pennsylvania history professor, and Harvey A. Silvergate, a Boston civil liberties lawyer. They said they were acting on behalf of people who felt they were the victims of illiberal policies and double standards. Much of the non-profit group’s donations come from family foundations and institutions, including such big names as the Charles G. Koch Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation.

This is not SDSU’s first encounter with FIRE. In 2020, FIRE successfully helped pressure the school’s University Senate to table a proposal that would have given SDSU the right to revoke the emeritus status of professors who harm the school’s reputation. FIRE characterized the proposal as a threat to free speech.

The group also accused the Senate of violating free speech rights by passing a rule in 2020 that required faculty to include a message about the history and culture of the Kumeyaay in their course syllabi. SDSU sits on land once occupied by the Kumeyaay, the original inhabitants of San Diego County.

Unidentified faculty asked FIRE for help overturning the rule earlier this year. The issue was resolved on March 1 when the Senate decided that the message an option, not a requirement.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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