Case Study - Language

A good way to introduce the complexity and nuance of academic freedom is to examine a few controversial cases. Included here are three actual cases, followed by the results of either legal review or expert opinion. Read the first half of the story and then stop. How do you think the story should end?


Obscene Language in the Classroom

John Bonnell is an English instructor at a community college where he has taught since 1967. In his lectures, he liberally uses the words “shit,” “fuck,” “cunt,” “ass” and “pussy.” Commenting on stories that contain romantic scenes, he talks about his own personal sexual experiences. Commenting on news events, he uses the phrases “butt-fucking” and “blow-job,” and makes other coarse references such as “tits on a nun are as useful as balls on a priest.” Several women in the classroom are offended and complain to the dean in writing, saying that Bonnell’s use of such language is demeaning and creates a hostile learning environment.

Stop. Before reading any further, what do you think?

Should the dean defend John Bonnell’s speech as protected under the framework of academic freedom?

What Actually Happened

The dean reprimanded Bonnell, telling him he was prohibited from using vulgar language in the classroom. Bonnell sued. The case, Bonnell v. Lorenzo (2001), eventually reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which held that, while Bonnell had the right to use obscene words, he did not have a constitutional right to use them in a classroom setting where they are not germane to the subject matter and are in contravention to the college’s sexual harassment policy.

“Although we do not wish to chill speech in the classroom setting, especially in the unique milieu of a college or university where debate and the clash of viewpoints are encouraged — if not necessary — to spur intellectual growth, it has long been held that despite the sanctity of the First Amendment, speech that is vulgar or profane is not entitled to absolute constitutional protection.”

In a different case, Hardy v. Jefferson Community College (2001), the same court ruled in favor of an instructor who used similarly vulgar speech but with a different intent. The course was entitled “Introduction to Interpersonal Communication” and the instructor, Hardy, employed several racist and sexist epithets. Despite student complaints, the court decided that Hardy’s language usage was in the context of a “discussion and analysis of words that have historically served the interests of the dominant culture in which they arise.”

Conclusion: Both Bonnell and Hardy used objectionable language in their respective classrooms; the distinction, however, lies in the degree to which the language was germane to the subject matter.