Do N-Word Policies Define Free Speech & Academic Freedom in Our Schools? | Joel Backon | 9 Min Read

October 13, 2022

Recently, I received a note asking Intrepid to write about a specific free speech/academic freedom issue that occurred at Milton Academy (MA) in April 2022. Events at schools, while often very specific circumstances that are difficult to fully understand from the outside, are more valuable as an example and catalyst for an exploration of issues that might interest many in our community. In this case, the issue is free speech on our campuses and is focused on a single word, the n-word. Given its history, the word deserves a focused discussion. For context, I will give you the “facts of the case” based on a published account by an interested party, but no additional context for the event since it is not the central focus of the discussion, and Milton Academy has opted not to comment on the specific event.

Briefly, a Milton student organization called the Public Issues Board invited Harvey Silverglate, a free speech advocate and founder of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), to speak at a series of seminars on a variety of topics selected by students. Silverglate’s topic was free speech and academic freedom. Early in Silverglate’s talk, he referenced a book written by a friend at Harvard, Randall Kennedy. In his reference, Silverglate stated the title of the book, N*******: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Silverglate’s explanation for using the word, which is the focus of this article, was unsatisfactory and offensive to many of the students, and consequently, a majority walked out of the lecture, leaving a small, but interested audience. While the walkout was irritating to Silverglate, it was not the event that triggered his ire. Several days later, the student Public Issues Board sent an email of apology to the student body for the use of the word, and one student forwarded that message to Silverglate. He responded to the upper school head asking to circulate his response to the student email. The school did not reply to Silverglate after repeated requests, leading to the article about the incident written by Silverglate and Kennedy (referenced in the first paragraph).

As we all know, nothing controversial that hits the internet flies under the radar these days, and the Milton incident was no exception. There were numerous responses to the Silverglate/Kennedy article here, here, and here, for example. The responses…

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Joel Backon

Joel Backon has been the Editor of Intrepid Ed News since its inception in January 2021, responsible for all educator content on the website. He joined the OESIS Network, owner of Intrepid, in 2019 as Vice President. Joel spent much of his career at Choate Rosemary Hall (CT) where for 27 years he held founding roles in Information and Academic Technology, as well as being a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, coach, dorm head, and student adviser. Prior to Choate, Joel spent 15 years in the printing and publishing industry educating printers on how to maximize their strengths and minimize weaknesses. He has crusaded to achieve consensus on the question of why we educate kids in an effort to meet the learning needs of every student.