St. John’s University Reportedly Fires Professor For Reading Racial Slur In Mark Twain Passage

Mark Twain once said that “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” Professor Hannah Berliner Fischthal may have cause to question that pearl of wisdom after she was sacked by St. John’s University after reading a Twain passage using the n-word. While adjunct instructor explained to the class that the word would be used in the context of the work and hoped it would not offend anyone, she was still fired.  This is not the first such controversy over academic freedom at St. John’s.

We have been discussing such controversies as more schools fired or discipline faculty despite their use of the words for academic purposes.  We have seen such investigations and terminations involving professors for the use of the “n-word” in classes or tests at GeorgetownDuquesneJohn MarshallAugsbergChicagoDePaulPrincetonKansas, and other schools.

This incident involves the reading a passage containing the N-word from Twain’s anti-slavery novel “Pudd’nhead Wilson” in her “Literature of Satire” class.  The work is a poignant satire of racism and satire. Published in 1894, the work focuses on a light-skinned slave named Roxy who has a baby boy at the same time as the master’s wife. She decides to spare her child the cruelty of slavery and the risk of being sold by switching the babies.  Roxy’s son, however, grows up to be a cruel and spoiled man while the master’s biological child grows up humble and true.

Ironically, Twain wrote about how Southerners were shielded from such discussions and the realities of slavery:

In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.

Twain wrote passionately against slavery like a dormant virus in our species. In his essay The Lowest Animal (1896), he wrote:

“Man is the only Slave. And he is the only animal who enslaves. He has always been a slave in one form or another and has always held other slaves in bondage under him in one way or another. In our day, he is always some man’s slave for wages and does that man’s work, and this slave has other slaves under him for minor wages, and they do his work. The higher animals are the only ones who exclusively do their own work and provide their own living.”

In works like  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Twain found ways to return to the subject: “The blunting effects of slavery upon the slaveholder’s moral perceptions are known and conceded the world over; and a privileged class, an aristocracy, is but a band of slaveholders under another name.”

Fishcthal explained to the class that “Mark Twain was one of the first American writers to use actual dialect. 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.”

However, after the class, a student objected to the reference and Fishcthal reached out to apologize for any offense and arranged a private discussion online about the incident. She wrote “I apologize if I made anyone uncomfortable in the class by using a slur when quoting from and discussing the text. Please do share your thoughts.” That was not enough.  While two students defended her, four objected and a complaint was filed.

Many academics view reading original texts like this one to be important to understanding the language and context of writings. That has long been protected as a matter of academic freedom, a position that I support. Faculty like Fischthal warn about the appearance of such language and recognize how offensive the term is. The action taken against Fischthal suggests that this type of decision is no longer left to the professor as a matter of academic freedom.

On March 3, Fischthal was called into a meeting about the class and was also confronted about commenting on a Black student’s hair. (Fischthal insisted that she did not comment on the hair but rather the fact that the student’s head being wrapped up during class). She said she was also criticized for discussing the experience of her family in the Holocaust.

She was then fired on April 29th.

The university however is quoted in denying that the reading itself was the reason for the termination. Brian Browne, a spokesman for St. John’s told the media that “If your assertion is that she was fired for reading aloud from a Mark Twain novel, that is incorrect.” However, it did not explain the basis for the termination. We have seen in past cases where universities confronted on such issues find collateral justifications for termination like a failure to properly respond to an inquiry or failure to take adequate steps to resolve such disputes.

The case has been taken up by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

One concern is that this is not the first such controversy for the university. Last year, the school fired adjunct history professor Richard Taylor, 46, who has also accused the school of not explaining the basis for the termination. Taylor was the subject of a complaint tied to his class (“History 1000: Emergence of a Global Society”) about the Columbian Exchange, the transfer of technology, ideas, food crops, disease, and populations between the New World and the Old World, West Africa, and the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries.

He taught the class for five years and in this class he showed a series of 42 PowerPoint slides that ended with a discussion of slavery and a prompt (Slide 46) asking “Do The Positives Outweigh The Negatives?” — a prompt that Taylor says that he routinely used as the end of powerpoint sections.

That led to a letter campaign calling for his termination, including one letter that objected that “It is outrageous that in 2020, our Black students are endangered by disgusting rhetoric used by a Professor, an individual who has a responsibility to adhere to the mission of our university to uphold a global community, to speak of slavery as if there was ‘good’ to come from it.”

Taylor was later and fired and, like Fischthal, objected to the lack of due and fair process from the school. He is now suing.

On the use of the n-word, schools seem to be treated this issue as a strict liability offense rather than a matter for academic freedom. The problem with such cases is that, unless the school explores the intent and context of a lesson, there is little due process afforded to professor. As Twain himself noted “All generalizations are false, including this one.”

59 thoughts on “St. John’s University Reportedly Fires Professor For Reading Racial Slur In Mark Twain Passage”

  1. The n-word, not nerd, is a color designation (e.g. diversity [dogma]) with modern semantic overtones a la White privilege, gender overtones a la toxic masculinity, ageist overtones a la “fetus” a.k.a. baby (when her life is deemed worthy of life).


    Perhaps not surprisingly, the Israelite slaves knew precisely what to do and precisely what their destination was, and were out of Egypt before the ink was dry on their release papers.

    Professor Hannah Berliner Fischthal and all Americans, may speak the “N” and any other word they choose as they enjoy the freedom of speech, just as St. John’s University may hire or remove any employee at its pleasure, discretion and chosen time, and all Americans enjoy the right to socially ostracize others.

    “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech,…”

    “No person shall be…deprived of…property,…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

    The 9th Amendment right to socially ostracize is retained by the people.

    The 1st Amendment freedom of speech and assembly/segregation, the 5th Amendment right to private property, and the 9th Amendment right to socially ostracize are not qualified by the Constitution and are, therefore, absolute.

    The judicial branch has no authority or power to legislate, modify legislation, “interpret” legislation or execute legislation, understanding that the sole charge and function of the judicial branch is to support the “manifest tenor” of the Constitution and assure that actions comport with law, statutory law and fundamental law.

    “[Private property is] that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.”

    – James Madison

    “St. John’s University is a private, Catholic university in New York City.”

    – Wiki

    1st Amendment

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    5th Amendment

    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

    9th Amendment

    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

    1. Hyphenates and connoisseurs of the fictional N-word deceit and propaganda, must ask themselves why they invaded a nation which is entirely under the dominion of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Naturalization Acts of 1790, 1795, 1798 and 1802 (four iterations), notwithstanding the yet and still illegitimate, unconstitutional and improperly ratified “Reconstruction Amendments,” which, along with the wholly illicit, unconstitutional and communistic redistribution of wealth and social engineering extant in America, falsely, artfully and artificially guarantee their success. Whatever will they do when actual Americans and Sleeping Giants awaken?

  3. That word should cause discomfort. But avoiding the conversation about it is like avoiding exercise because it causes sore muscles. You get soft and weak. Hard conversations to sort out problems and to better understand difficult things need to happen.

    “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” ~the Dread Pirate, Robert

    1. Prairie, lots of words cause discomfort. Think of illness, death and pain. What is really being demanded is subservience. Those people demanding this type of subservience are evil.

      1. S. Meyer. I have had my fill of F bombs in movies. It’s as if writers have 100 word vocabularies and a third of those are F bombs spat out with varied emphasis. Very poor taste. Imagine Gone With the Wind written that way–unwatchable. Unfortunately it is an element of black culture, along with MF, that we could do without. That is one cultural appropriation that we should reject. Fine for them, though, along with N words. They can keep them.

      2. S. Meyer,
        “What is really being demanded is subservience.”

        There is that, too. I suspect one may lead to the other.

        Nuanced, difficult conversations are not enough people’s cup of tea. They like soundbites and slogans and talking points. People want to stay where they feel comfortable instead of exploring the unknown, even when it comes to ideas. People don’t like to be poked in their axioms, as Dr. Peterson has noted.

  4. Jonathan: Once again you are outspoken in condemning the firing of professors which you say is a violation of “academic freedom”. But there are so few facts surrounding the firing of Professors Fischtholt and Taylor how are we to form our own judgment as to whether their free speech rights were violated by St. John University? Fischtholt may have been fired for reasons only partly related to her discussion of Mark Twain’s writings. We don’t know but the University denies it had anything to do with use of the N-word in class discussions. Without more we are simply left with speculation. In the case of Professor Taylor we have some inkling of the problem with his teaching methods. You point out that in a power-point presentation on slavery Taylor ended with a slide (Slide 46) that asked the question: “Do the Positives Outweigh the Negatives?”. Wow! In this day and age anyone who could suggest there were “positives” from slavery should expect and deserve severe criticism. No wonder schools around the country are in need of “critical race theory”. In the end I don’t think we really know precisely why these professors were fired–probably because institutions of higher learning don’t discuss “personnel matters”. That leaves us with a lot of speculation that is not particularly helpful or useful in discussing the merits of the two cases.

    On a related issue my quarrel with you is that you focus almost exclusively on so-called “free speech” violations involving conservative professors and students while ignoring the broader problem of attacks on actual free speech elsewhere. As pointed out in a previous comment GOP controlled legislatures around the country are busy trying to criminalize what journalists do and to ban the teaching about race and racism in public schools. That’s a direct assault on the First Amendment that you are seemingly silent about. Why is that? Attacks on journalists are particularly worrisome. Except for a column back in 2018 (11/9/18) about the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and another Saudi journalist by the Saudi regime you have been strangely silent about worldwide attacks on journalists. This week Israeli planes bombed and destroyed a high-rise in Gaza City containing the offices of AP, Al Jazeera and other news outlets. The IDF gave journalists just one hour to evacuate. They probably did this only because bombing and killing a lot of journalists would be bad optics. But Israel clearly does not want journalists to report on its war on the Palestinian civilian population in the occupied territories. So the message to journalists from Israel is clear–report at your own peril! You may not be an authority on international law but targeting journalists is a war crime. During the Iraq war Bush got in hot water for targeting journalists with Hellfire missiles. Under supplemental Article 79 to Article 4(A)(4) of the Third Geneva Convention radio and TV facilities are deemed “civilian objects” and are banned from attack during a military conflict. The International Criminal Court has jurisdiction to prosecute such violations. So tell us again why the firing of two professors at St. John University is so much more important than the rights of journalists to report without being attacked and the free speech right of students to hear about the history of racism in this country. Now there is a Mark Twain quote you omitted. A lot of Twain quotes weren’t his but were the invention of others who thought their own thoughts would have greater impact if attributed to the great American author. Now I know this quote is Twain’s because I was there when he spoke it: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt”.

    1. “This week Israeli planes bombed and destroyed a high-rise in Gaza City containing the offices of AP, Al Jazeera and other news outlets”
      Good. They offered themselves as shields for murderers.

    2. “This week Israeli planes bombed and destroyed a high-rise in Gaza City containing the offices of AP, Al Jazeera and other news outlets.”

      Hamas hides its weapons in places like that. They do the same in schools and hospitals. Sometimes they surround their rocket launchers with children so the children will die if the Israeli air force tries to destroy the installation.

      However, take note everyone was warned to get out and they did. Then the site was bombed. That is quite different from Hamas terrorism. Hamas sends missiles into heavily populated areas in order to kill women and children.

    3. “This week Israeli planes bombed and destroyed a high-rise in Gaza City containing the offices of AP, Al Jazeera and other news outlets.”

      Nice lie by omission. The Iranian (and Biden administration) backed terrorist group, Hamas, operated in that building. Note to journalists: Don’t take office space in a building where your neighbors are murderous barbarians.

      Israel’s “war on the Palestinian civilian population in the occupied territories.”

      That’s delusional. Hamas, a *terrorist* group, started this war. Israel has every moral right to retaliate with whatever force is necessary. If the Biden administration’s moral compass weren’t pointed so far left, it would send Israel more than just lip service — like some F-16s, cruise missiles, stealth bombers. And it would send some aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf, with a warning to Iran: De-fang Hamas. Or else.

  5. I appreciate that you want to frame such instances as value-neutral defenses of free speech or academic freedom. But the people doing this don’t care . At some point we all have to confront the totalitarian beast in the room on its own terms. The beast, itself, will never change, but people and institutions that are responsible for protecting those right, may.

    These suppression’s and cancellations are intrinsic to applied critical theory and will not be defeated until critical theory is itself indicted and has its rationale and world view defeated. Until that fight is engaged, asking for fair treatment based on liberal Enlightenment values is a losing strategy because it ignores the real source of the problem. The cancellations are a symptom and cannot be solved unless the underlying problem is confronted.

  6. How many of these woke college administrators voted for any Republican? Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery by the Democrat woke mob. There must be a fight for the livelihood of those who have been wrongly accused. Republican lawyers unite.

  7. Interesting that neither Professor Turley nor any commenter here is willing to actually spell out the offending word, presumably for fear of being similarly attacked or cancelled. Meanwhile, what were formerly the most offensive profanities are now freely uttered even in such august places as the NY Times. I have not heard of any professor being disciplined for excessive profanity. It used to be a sin to take the Lord’s name in vain. I know Jews that still write G-D. Do they think something bad will happen if they spell it out? What is it about a word that inspires such a reaction – regardless of the context? Why is it OK to say “people of color” but not “colored people”? Why is it OK for homosexuals to call themselves queer but not for heterosexuals to do so? For blacks to say “nigger” but racist for others to do so? Why is it OK to say NAACP but not the actual name of the organization? Who makes these rules?

  8. The word formerly known as the N word’ is now “the word formerly known as the ? word” that [use preferred pronouns here] can no longer say.

    Sorry [not really] I will say whatever I want.

  9. Black rappers can’t manage to heel-toe it through a single track without throwing out the N word. A certain class of black people use the N word like a ubiquitous catch all. It means homey, friend, scrub, and can also be used as a pause word, as “like” is so often used.

    But a white person reading Mark Twain is guilty of a sin that can break his career.

    White kids and teenagers and singers can hear rap music blasting out of car windows, a continuous stream of the N word, and they can pass black people happily calling each other the N word, but if they innocently copy it to ” sound cool” or use it like “homey”, their opportunities in life are over forever. No college. No job offers. Just crawl under a rock.

    I’m sorry, but this is stupid. Stop feeding into it in the rush to prove yourself “anti-racist”. All “anti-racist” means is that you’re a useful brown shirt tool used to punish dissenters.

    1. Did you say, “…prove yourself anti-racist?”

      Potential proof of white supremacy:

      – Martin Luther King

      – Orenthal Simpson

      – Frederick Douglas

      – Bill Cosby

      – Cassius Clay

      – Booker T. Washington

      – Le Bron James

      – Nelson Mandella

      How about all those fine white British monikers for all those fine, upstanding white English Caucasians?

  10. By the way, Samuel Clemens did not grow up “in the South.” He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri which is due west of Springfield, Illinois and closer to Chicago than it is to Memphis. Furthermore, although Missouri was a slave state, it remained with the Union as did other slave states, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware.

  11. It is absurd that college administrators are giving students such power. These students have barely begun their academic studies, yet administrators are assuming that they know what they’re talking about, that they are rational, reasonable adults, and that they should have life and death power over faculty. Students are passing through the academy, most barely crack a book during their 4-year stay, and even then they graduate with less-than competent skills in even the basics. Student evaluations at the end of a semester have always been a joke. Allowing these barely literate transients to trash academic freedom by giving them “firing” provileges over faculty will now be the end of the academy. And let’s be clear, that “end” started when the academy opened its doors to such garbage classes as women’s studies and all the ethnic studies departments that require nothing more than impressionable kids being manipulated by third-rate academics with far-fetched ideologies they dressed up as “theories.”

  12. The left and the Black Caucus don’t want justice. They want scapegoats. Does anyone not understand that yet?

    “N-word” is like baby talk. It’s how we normally speak to children with immature and unbridled emotions. Never discuss anything important with adults exhibiting border personality disorder unless you want a knife in your eye socket.

    1. “Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?”

      – Chico Marx

      From whence do Americans derive their rights, freedoms, privileges and immunities?

      Are they engendered by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights or were they compassionately bestowed by the artificially successful beneficiaries of generational welfare, affirmative action and unfair fair housing, the righteously indignant and “untouchable” Africans?

      “Who you gonna believe, the Constitution and Bill of Rights or a bunch of “untouchable,” dependent and righteously indignant Africans?”

      – Constitutional Americans

  13. If John was a Saint he would send them a line.
    Go back to Europe and get back into crime.

  14. The FIRE website is an excellent source of information regarding colleges, universities in the US regarding their conduct of violations against freedom of speech.

    If you know of a young person currently doing a college search you may consider forwarding, passing along FIRE’s website as a resource material to both the student, and parents .

  15. There is, in linguistics, a distinction between ‘use’ and ‘mention.’ This was a mention, not a use. If not used, how can anyone object? It was not a racial slur directed at anyone nor any group. It was reading aloud a written word.

  16. Tim Scott said in his response to Biden’s speech that he, Scott, had experienced racism, had even been called “the n-word.” How much more powerful it would have been for him to say, “And I’ve even been called a n*****!” This “n-word” is a true dumbing down in the dictionary definition of “dumb”: “lacking the human power of speech.” (Webster’s online, definition 2a.)

  17. On and on it goes. We do know where this leads and it’s not a good place.

  18. Yet, we have our bloggers that seem to insist that what we are seeing here, in social media, and elsewhere doesn’t exist, isn’t important, or is equally distributed among the different perspectives. One has to wonder if those I am referring to are sentient persons.

      1. The highest form of civilization exists under the absolute, unassailable and immutable genius and dominion of the “manifest tenor” of the Constitution and Bill of Rights of the American Founders – impotent elected officials and the vote being moot in the face of the aforementioned overriding fundamental law, understanding that the legislative, executive and judicial branches must strictly adhere to and support the literal aforementioned fundamental law.

        The rabid and radioactive emotion of the envy, greed and violence of communists, who are compelled to forcibly impose the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and share the misery, constitute the lowest form of, not civilization but anarchy.

        We could ask the Romanovs, the Soviet population who were the victims from 1917 to 1989, or the peasants, serfs and slaves of North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba and China.

        Oh, wait. You can’t. The Romanovs were slaughtered, the Soviet Union collapsed and access is strictly denied to the rest.

  19. Little left to say except that we have to defeat this malignant trend and remind Lefties of freedom of speech.

    1. I agree with you monumentCO, but the question is how? And when is it too late (a time, I fear, that is drawing near).

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