Case Study

American University student uses n-word in video


On April 7, 2019, during a discussion about language and free speech, a student at American University (AU) consensually shot video of another student saying the n-word and explaining, “I think it’s okay to say any word.” When the video went viral on campus and beyond, many students of color at American University commiserated over it, nodding to a larger problem with racial incidents at the institution. In response, the university tweeted that it does not condone the use of the word, that it recognizes the harm such language can cause, and that “with freedom of expression comes responsibility.” Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence, sent an additional email acknowledging the harmful impact and announcing that in addressing the issue the university would be guided by its student code of conduct and by “restorative processes that begin to repair trust and relationships.” Some students found these statements insufficient, and one wrote an article for the student newspaper, The Eagle, saying that the institution’s response “fails its students.” Ultimately, no disciplinary measures were taken.

PEN America Analysis

While the student undeniably used the racial slur, he did so in a conversation about the limits of free expression rather than in a targeted attack against another student. Because of this context, the action was reasonably determined to not be punishable under the university’s student code of conduct. Many find this outcome troubling, but a university has a responsibility to strictly adhere to its policies when dealing with bias incidents so that free speech is not chilled by overly policed language or a broad lexicon of off-limits terms. Before the video, there were multiple other incidents at AU that left students of color feeling unwelcome, such as bananas etched with racist messages that were found hanging from nooses. That background can certainly affect the university’s response, but it should not result in disciplinary measures when the actions at hand do not merit them. The boundary between irreverence and bigotry can be in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes questionable speech or actions are fed by genuine ignorance rather than malicious intent. Some youthful indiscretions warrant forgiveness, others deserve contempt, while still others call for discipline. In this case, the university should continue to take steps to communicate its support for diversity and inclusion and the seriousness with which it takes hateful speech and hate crimes. Likewise, students should feel empowered to demand a more inclusive campus and see to it that the upsetting incidents are met by their campus leaders with channels of support, spaces for conversation, and listening ears.

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