Opinions and Legal Insights

Should Universities Recommend (or Demand) Epithet Filtering on Students’ and Professors’ Internet Devices?

Some students, faculty, and administrators have argued that even hearing racial epithets quoted is traumatic or at least highly offensive to students, and that decent people therefore should not quote them. Most of these complaints have arisen with regard to quotes of the word “nigger,” whether from court opinions, court case files, historical documents, literature, or otherwise. My view is that these words shouldn’t be rendered taboo for serious academic discussion, and that there’s a sharp difference between improper use of the words (especially to insult someone) and proper mention of how the words were used in a case or book or speech.

But let me try to approach the problem in a slightly different way; tell me if you think it’s helpful.

I take it that if it’s so damaging and unjustifiable for students to have to hear the word, it’s also damaging and unjustifiable for them to have to see the word. Indeed, one of the recent complaints has been about a Stanford professor writing the word on the board; a commenter on this blog seems to be objecting to my even quoting the word in blog posts; others have mentioned similar objections.

And it’s not surprising: We are all literate folk, and we all know the power of the written word; no-one would doubt, for instance, that e-mailing someone to call them by an epithet would be extremely insulting. If the use-mention distinction doesn’t matter for oral statements, why should it matter for written ones? Yet whatever a professor may or may not say in class, students will likely see the word written in many places: It appears in over 10,000 court opinions on Westlaw, in thousands of law review articles, and in many other places, including history books, novels, and more.

Enter Advanced Profanity Filter, a Chrome app that expurgates whatever words it is set to expurgate. (That’s its logo above.) The default list includes vulgarities and slurs, but it can be reconfigured as necessary. Anyone using the Filter can be shielded from seeing various words in Westlaw, on Google Scholar, or wherever else. Whether you’re reading an online court opinion or a newspaper article or an e-mail, you’ll see the word written as “n*****” or some such. (And if you want to distinguish situations the Filter changes from ones where the word is “n*****” in the original, you can use an unusual expurgation, such as “n@@@@@.”)

Of course, this only works for normal text; I don’t know of any such filter for PDF viewers. But it should be a fairly straightforward coding project (at least as to PDFs that have searchable text)—presumably a university that really thinks its students need such shielding could have its tech people create such a filter, and indeed then make it available to the whole world. Likewise, it could create such a filter for other browsers, and perhaps even have a voice recognition bleeper for videos, songs, and the like (though I realize that this is a harder task).

Then the university might have several options:

  1. It could encourage black students—and perhaps even professors—to run this filter, to prevent them from being traumatized by seeing “nigger.” (It might perhaps encourage gay students to do the same, especially if it adds “faggot” to the list.)
  2. It could encourage all students and professors to run this filter, since many students object (or perhaps, in the university‘s view, should object) to such words even if they don’t refer to the identity groups to which they belong. It could add other phrases that some students find offensive, such as “illegal alien.” And the university could of course make it as easy as possible to use the filter, for instance turning it on by default on computers that it sells in the student store.
  3. It could require students and professors to run the filter, since this will remind them of the university‘s view that they shouldn’t be quoting those words out loud: If students or professors is are an expurgated version of a case, this will make it more likely that they will say an expurgated version of the word as well. And this will also signal that the university refuses to allow its network used for spreading such awful words.

Do you think that universities should do this? A few possible answers, though there are many others:

[1.] Great idea! (Please indicate whether you’d go for option A, B, C, or something else.)

[2.] Not a good idea, because the filter can’t tell whether a particular word was written by someone who is black (or, for other epithets, a member of the relevant group). The theory: There’s nothing wrong with blacks quoting the word—it’s only people of other races who shouldn’t quote it, and a filter that filters out the writings of black authors that use the word is unacceptably overinclusive. But maybe there could be a filter focused on Westlaw, Lexis, and Google Scholar, which first identifies the opinion author’s name and looks it up in a table that indicates each judge‘s race ….

[3.] Not a good idea, because reading the word is just fine and untraumatic, but hearing it (again, in a quote from a case or some such) is something that “[h]uman decency and respect for the feelings of others” forbids “without qualification.”

[4.] This proposal is missing the point: The goal shouldn’t be to prevent trauma to black students caused by seeing or hearing the word—it should be to stop white people (or, more generally, non-black people) from saying or writing the word, regardless of who sees or hears it. Even if black students are automatically shielded from it, so long as white people keep quoting it in material that they write (or keep including unexpurgated passages containing it in their course assignments or some such), that’s still bad.

[5.] Not a good idea, because (A) university students should be encouraged to read actual sources as they actually exist (offensive words and all)—and (B) law students, who are joining a profession in which such words routinely appear (in opinions, briefs, case documents, trials, oral arguments, and witness interviews), should likewise be taught to get the raw information, offensive as it may be, and then to decide as a tactical matter how best to quote it. Encouraging students to filter out words like this, including when they read precedents, articles, books, and the like, is teaching them the opposite of the norms and practices that they need to learn.

As you might gather, I take the last of these views (for the reasons that Randall Kennedy and I lay out in Quoting Epithets in the Classroom and Beyond), but I’d love to hear what others think, both as to this question and as to the thought experiment more broadly.