“Dark And Vile Verbiage”: Law Professor Under Fire For Use Of Censored Version Of The “N Word” on Exam

Jason Kilborn is a professor at John Marshall Law School at the University of Illinois-Chicago who wrote a Civil Procedure exam based on an employment discrimination hypothetical. The question referenced the use of racial and sexual epithets but, rather than use the words, Kilborn used commonly censored versions of just the first letter and blanks.  That led to his suspension at the school and now, after he was reinstated, University of Illinois-Chicago Chancellor Michael Amiridis has issued a letter to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that did little to quell concerns over academic freedom. Indeed, it seemed to minimize those concerns. While I disagree that the letter was a categorical denial any academic freedom protection, the controversy is chilling for those who see both free of speech and academic freedom being eroded on our campuses.  (For full disclosure, I have an honorary degree from John Marshall Law School).

Professor Kilborn’s Civil Procedure II exam described how an employee quit “after she attended a meeting in which other managers expressed their anger at Plaintiff, calling her a ‘n___’ and ‘b___’ [sic].”  The full exam question was reprinted by Professor Eugene Volokh in a column criticizing the action against Kilborn.

The use of the censored references led to a complaint in a letter from the Black Law Students Association and later a petition which called for Kilborn to be stripped of his committee assignments and other reforms. The Petition stated:

The slur shocked students created a momentous distraction and caused unnecessary distress and anxiety for those taking the exam. Considering the subject matter, and the call of the question, the use of the “n____” and “b____” was certainly unwarranted as it did not serve any educational purpose. The question was culturally insensitive and tone-deaf. It lacked basic civility and respect for the student body, especially considering our social justice efforts this year.

The integration of this dark and vile verbiage on a Civil Procedure II exam was inexcusable and appropriate measures of accountability must be executed by the UIC administration.

College Fix described the letter from Amiridis as a denial of any academic freedom protections for Kilborn. I do not quite see it that way. The letter denies that there are academic freedom protections against any investigation or adjudication of such claims.  He is arguing that such investigations can vindicate academic freedom values but that the university has an obligation to investigate.

My objection is in the measures taken against Professor Kilborn, which I do believe undermine academic freedom. He was suspended and put on administrative leave because of a complaint that in my view was a denial of his pedagogical privileges. The matter could have been investigated further by the university after an initial determination not to change his status. Instead, he was suspended — a decision that clearly will create a chilling effect on other academics at the school.

I am also concerned by the position of Amiridis in a lengthy footnote that says that the university disputes the claim that the use of the terms was “pedagogical relevant” or “necessarily germane to the study of civil procedure.” That is a statement that drives to the very core of academic freedom. Just because Kilborn teaches Civil Procedure does not mean that hypotheticals raising racial discrimination are not germane. The best Civil Procedure teachers show how these rules can raise difficult political, social, and constitutional issues when applied in different contexts. Moreover, professors have been pushed by universities and various academic groups to incorporate greater consideration of social justice and racial equality issues in their classes.

Professor Kilborn wrote an exam question that included the censored versions of words that are commonly found in media articles and academic publications. For that, he was publicly suspended and ostracized. The school could have investigated without changing his status. It is important to listen to these students who felt offended by the question. Indeed, this was an opportunity to discuss why professors often raise such discomforting or even offensive issues in our exams. I do not believe suspension however was warranted and that the treatment of Kilborn undermined the values of academic freedom in making such choices.

The university has noted that there were other issues raised by students. One such issue appears to be related to a conversation with a student after the exam. Kilborn held a lengthy Zoom call with a member of the BLSA and Northwestern University Law Prof. Andrew Koppelman included Kilborn’s account in an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“While the battle over the exam language continues, it turns out I was actively misled into believing my suspension was related to that language.

“On Thursday, January 7, I voluntarily agreed to talk to one of the Black Law Students Association members who had advanced this petition against me. Around hour 1 or 1.5 of a 4-hour Zoom call that I endured from 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm with this young man, he asked me to speculate as to why the dean had not sent me BLSA’s attack letter, and I flippantly responded, ‘I suspect she’s afraid if I saw the horrible things said about me in that letter I would become homicidal.’ Conversation continued without a hitch for 2.5 or 3 more hours, and we concluded amicably with a promise to talk more later.

“He apparently turned around and reported that I was a homicidal threat. Our university’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Team convened, with no evidence of who I am at all, and recommended to my dean that I be placed on administrative leave and barred from campus. […] Having full discretion to implement or reject that recommendation, and knowing me fairly well, having worked with me quite a bit for the past four years, my dean decided that I was, indeed, a homicidal threat.”

Dean Darby Dickerson (who also served as president of the Association of American Law Schools) reported Kilborn on the basis of that statement in a four-hour Zoom call. Again, the question is why the school cannot address such claims informally when the statement was clearly meant in jest. There is no indication that Professor Kilborn is indeed homicidal. Indeed, holding a four-hour call with a single concerned student would seem strong evidence of a desire to engage concerned students and explain his pedagogical purposes.

It is important to note that this entire controversy began with an exam question on an employment discrimination case that censored terms to avoid discomfort or insult. As academics (and particularly law professors), we have to address difficult and discomforting issues in our society. Our students have to be prepared to work in a world that is filled with such offensive terms and discrimination. Instead, the university and the law school showed little concern for the impact on these actions on not just Professor Kilborn but other professors.  Few would want to risk such public humiliation and suspension.  The result is that they are likely to simply sanitize exams questions to avoid anything that might trip a wire or cause a complaint. The loss is not just felt in eroding academic freedom values but in abridging academic training for our students.

154 thoughts on ““Dark And Vile Verbiage”: Law Professor Under Fire For Use Of Censored Version Of The “N Word” on Exam”

  1. The message of the Black Law Students Association is very clear, and it has nothing to do with certain language being so offensive that it should never appear anywhere, even in censored form. The message is simple: “Fear us.” They are flexing their political muscle, demonstrating their political power, and there is no greater political power than that which can destroy arbitrarily, at a whim.

  2. Race, base, bo face.
    Banana fanna foe space.
    Fee, fi Moe, hase.
    Moe, Larry, Cheese.
    Yuk, yuk, yuk, muck.

    When the third Stooge is lying real huge..
    You shut him down and pet the puge.
    Marshall, bar shell. Smells like Markel.

    Leave that school and join the Stooges.

    1. Off topic:. Snail mail and Bidens downfall. Biden has no person in place and no plan to put the u.s. mail system back in efficient operation.
      The u.s. mail system is the central aspect of federal government which the population judges. Americans desire a good efficient postal system.
      Biden is continuing the downside set by Trumpster.
      Biden will loss all popularity very soon because of this.

  3. “Racism is not dead, but it is on life support — kept alive by politicians, race hustlers and people who get a sense of superiority by denouncing others as “racists.”—Thomas Sowell (2012).

    Before false accusations of racism were used as a pretext to kill civil rights, we could laugh at one another and ourselves. Sadly, those days are gone. But here’s a time capsule reminder of those days:

  4. “Let them eat communism.”

    – Marie Antoinette

    Marie Antoinette put up a wall.

    She is terrified of guillotines.

    Rightly so.

  5. Well now that America is conquered country we have to obey our new masters. Us slaves have no rights. Master say, slave do.

  6. Good article. Here’s another example of how behavioral is manipulated to meet a different reality:

    When neoclassical economists’ models are compared with reality, they fail, often spectacularly. But rather than sacrifice their models to accommodate a broader definition of rationality, where humans use the means available to them to meet subjectively valued ends that can differ based on a multitude of factors, neoclassical economists of late classify those who deviate from these models as “irrational,” and make it their mission to fix them.

    1. Sounds a lot like what is being done with climate models. By now the polar ice caps should be gone and snow should be a distant memory cherished by the old folks.

      Just now the old folks [and the young] don’t have to think far back in the memories to think of cold and snow.

      Our ‘experts’ are a disgraceful lot these days.

      1. Too much pushback on “global warming” so they renamed it “climate change”.
        There is such a thing. It’s been going on for millions of years. Humans didn’t cause it. Flatus of cattle didn’t cause it. It was designed that way.
        Probably because when one species thinks they are omnipotent, climate reminds them they are not with a volcano or ice floe.

        1. MIT Professor Hutchinson believes that within his children’s or grand children’s lifetimes, due to carbon warming, either a few billion humans shall die or we must return to a pre-Columbian lifestyle. Not saying he’s right but he is a happy, apparently honest and likable Christian who contradicts all the typical awful qualities listed by carbon-warmed earth deniers. He is most certainly not a carbon warming profiteer in any way shape or form (as some scientists appear to be).

          I know that other scientists with similar credentials believe Hutchinson’s predictions are overly extreme.

  7. The great majority of individuals in academia, including law professors are leftists to a varying degree. I get pleasure at watching the “revolution” eat its own children. Looks like being a “good leftist” is of no help to this professor.


  8. As if right on cue, we get the Biden administration further manipulating language.

    The Biden administration has instructed Department of Homeland Security officials to use more “inclusive language” to describe people residing in the country illegally, such as dropping the word “alien” and replacing it with “noncitizen,” according to a memo recently issued by immigration authorities.

    1. Make them hurt and make them pay.

      Well, that is their motto, they should recognize it when it happens to them.

  9. This bizarre and contemptible situation is arising in many universities that admit subpar students because the student’s color counts for more than his ability or motivation.

    Once in the institution and aware that they are not prepared to learn anything, they raise hell.

  10. A couple of excerpts from Brutus No. 1, Annotated, October 18, 1787 (Anti-Federalists) ——
    “When the public is called to investigate and decide upon a question in which not only the present members of the community are deeply interested, but upon which the happiness and misery of generations yet unborn is in great measure suspended, the benevolent mind cannot help feeling itself peculiarly interested in the result… Perhaps this country never saw so critical a period in their political concerns. We have felt the feebleness of the ties by which these United-States are held together, and the want of sufficient energy in our present confederation, to manage, in some instances, our general concerns. Various expedients have been proposed to remedy these evils, but none have succeeded…”——-“… But if, on the other hand, this form of government contains principles that will lead to the subversion of liberty—if it tends to establish a despotism, or, what is worse, a tyrannic aristocracy; then, if you adopt it, this only remaining assylum for liberty will be shut up, and posterity will execrate your memory…”——– “…But remember, when the people once part with power, they can seldom or never resume it again but by force. Many instances can be produced in which the people have voluntarily increased the powers of their rulers; but few, if any, in which rulers have willingly abridged their authority. This is a sufficient reason to induce you to be careful, in the first instance, how you deposit the powers of government…”———-“…informing a government on its true principles the foundation should be laid…by expressly reserving to the people such of their essential natural rights, as are not necessary to be parted with…”

  11. Rush Limbaugh, lion of the right and scion of honorable attorneys and patriots, dead this morning at 70. R.I.P.

    1. May the Lord Jesus Christ welcome him into this kingdom! I will post a prayer for the repose of his soul.


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