If a student reports being offended by something you said in class

Classrooms should be spaces to explore a wide range of ideas, some of which might make students uncomfortable or cause offense. Academic freedom protects your right to communicate difficult ideas in the classroom as long as they are relevant to the material. But if a student complains, it is important to reflect on their concerns and on your pedagogical choices. Consider what you can do to create a learning environment that is both inclusive to all and open to diversity of thought.


    Professors have broad rights to free expression, including those grounded in the principle of academic freedom. But if your protected speech offends a student, they have a right to voice their criticism. It may be necessary to remind administrators, fellow faculty, or students of the basics of academic freedom. Understand this principle—and its limitations—especially as it relates to free speech.

    See AAUP’s “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure”


    Even if your words fall within the bounds of protected speech, consider whether the language you used was necessary for the lesson and whether you could have conveyed your ideas without alienating the student. Also consider why your speech upset the student. Often, students speak out not with the purpose of disciplining a professor but to vocalize a sense of alienation. Consider a range of responses before taking action.


    If the student has not come to you but you are aware that something you said was interpreted negatively, consider reaching out and setting up a time to discuss the incident.


    Even if you disagree with their reasoning, make an effort to understand why the student was offended and how you can open up a productive conversation. 


    If, after a conversation, you conclude that your language was ill chosen, be clear about your mistake. If you feel that your language was justified, explain your perspective calmly and honestly. If what you said was particularly controversial or alienating, consider taking additional steps to restore trust in the classroom. You have the right to teach any content, but it benefits everyone to approach highly controversial material sensitively and to be clear about its pedagogical role. 


    Make sure to keep your department head and other faculty members informed throughout your interactions with the student. If the incident attracts public attention, it’s important to coordinate with them, as well as with the university’s communications team, to plan a formal response.