Late last month, St. Johns University fired adjunct Professor Hannah Berliner Fischthal. She says it’s because she read a passage from Mark Twain’s novel “Pudd’nhead Wilson” during an online class that included the verbatim uttering of a racial slur.
She taught a class on ‘Literature of Satire’ and delivered trigger warnings prior to quoting directly from the text.
“Mark Twain was one of the first American writers to use actual dialect,” Fischthal explained to students. “His use of the ‘N-word’ is used only in dialogues as it could have actually been spoken in the south before the civil war, when the story takes place.”
After the class, she was contacted by a student who said the episode was “unnecessary and very painful to hear.” Professor Fischthal said she was sorry and invited students to participate in a discussion.
“I apologize if I made anyone uncomfortable in the class by using a slur when quoting from and discussing the text,” Fischthal wrote to her students. “Please do share your thoughts.”
A few did and all seemed copacetic. Until that is, the University suspended her for violations of the university bias policy on March 5. On April 29 she was fired.
St. John’s said publicly that the Twain episode isn’t what caused Fischthal’s termination but refused further elaboration. Fischthal said her record is otherwise spotless and insists it was the Twain reading. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to the University on her behalf pointing out, “Quoting (Mark Twain’s) work in a class on satire falls squarely within the protection afforded by academic freedom, which gives faculty members the breathing room to determine whether — and how — to discuss material students might find offensive.”
It’s worth noting some irony here. Specifically, that Twain’s text is an anti-slavery work of fiction that mocks the absurdity of racism. It’s also worth mentioning that Fischthal is the child of Holocaust survivors and was trying to teach about the dangers of racial and ethnic division.
Her approach, precautions and delivery seem reasonable and prudent to us, which makes it even more challenging for us to understand the reactions of the university in this case.
We understand how thorny are discussions about academic free speech as they rub against politically correct thought police patrolling American universities. Whenever confronted by this antagonism we’re reminded of the “Statement on Principles of Free Expression,” published almost a decade ago by the University of Chicago, that well-embodies the spirit of openness and academic inquiry we associate with places of higher learning.
“Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn,” the statement says. With narrow exceptions - to include threats, harassment, defamation, and invasions of privacy or confidentiality - “the University is committed to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the members of the University community to make those judgments for themselves.”
In controversial matters, the University rightly embraces a free exchange. “The proper response to ideas they find offensive, unwarranted and dangerous is not interference, obstruction, or suppression,” Chicago explains to community members. “It is, instead, to engage in robust counter-speech that challenges the merits of those ideas and exposes them for what they are. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”
As cases like Fischthal’s become more pervasive, we sincerely wish more universities would embrace the spirit of Chicago’s statement. Training our young people to stifle ideas and language they feel are objectionable is intellectually crippling and morally objectionable. Revisionist history, militant censorship and cancel culture don’t serve anyone well.