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Saturday, November 19, 2016

University of Oregon law professor's blackface costume provokes free speech discussion

University of Oregon law school professor's blackface Halloween costume

PHOTO: A University of Oregon law school professor's blackface Halloween costume led many of her colleagues to call for her her resignation. See newspaper articles by Diane Dietz, "University Of Oregon: UO president denounces law professor who donned blackface for Halloween party," The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, posted Nov. 3, 2016 , Diane Dietz, "University Of Oregon: UO Law faculty members seek professor's resignation in the wake of her blackface Halloween costume," The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, posted Nov. 4, 2016 and Diane Dietz, The Register-Guard, "Black Students urge changes at University of Oregon," Corvallis Gazette-Times, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016, p. A9, originally printed as "Black students press for UO strides on race," The Register-Guard, Nov. 12, 2016.

A Eugene, Oregon alternative weekly newspaper published a letter by Vince Loving, "Letters to the Editor 2016-11-10: Forced to Resign," Eugene Weekly, Nov. 10, 2016, p. 4, who said, "A UO professor may be fired or, as they say in polite company, forced to resign for wearing blackface at a Halloween party. . . The professor was not mocking Afro-Americans but trying to make a point. The theme was based on the book Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor's Reflection on Race and Medicine about racism in medical school. . ."

An editorial published in the same alternative weekly newspaper edition criticized the rush to judgement against the professor:

"Was a valuable teachable moment eclipsed by political correctness at the University of Oregon? A UO law faculty member blackened her face - something she absolutely should not have done - in an attempt to make a point about race. Nancy Shurtz, a highly respected UO law prof for more than 30 years, invited faculty and students to her home for a Halloween party. Her costume was a white coat and blackface depicting Dr. Damon Tweedy, who wrote Black Man in a White Coat, a best-selling book about racial hurdles for a medical professional. Shurtz has publicly apologized for her mistake in using blackface. The law dean has suspended her from teaching, 23 law faculty members have asked her to resign and UO President Michael Schill is highly critical in his public statements. Wait. What about due process and facts and the UO's own policies on free speech and academic freedom, the First Amendment? The faculty union, of which the law school is not a member, has written that Shurtz is entitled to a fair hearing, a position that we assume is held by law school faculty other than the 23? Academic politics is also a big player here, but that's another slant." (Quoted from EW Staff, "Slant," Eugene Weekly, Nov. 10, 2016, p. 8)

The "Eugene Weekly" has a long reputation for having a liberal readership, especially being in the same town as the University of Oregon, which includes the main law school in Oregon. Therefore, I will be interested to see the response to my letter they published in response to this incident:

While I share the disgust reaction to a University of Oregon Professor wearing a blackface costume, I find the calls for her resignation to be hypocritical, especially coming from attorneys trained to defend the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

I have experienced a similar disgust reaction to misogynistic and homophobic portrayals of women and gay people as being dumb or limp-wristed queens, and have felt the urge to call for its censorship.

However, my Grandfather taught me that censorship based on disgust can be dangerous, as he witnessed in 1933 at Berlin University where Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld's research books on homosexuals were literally burned by Nazis disgusted by it.

I am old enough to have watched "Amos 'n' Andy" on network television -- a show that was later censored for its virtual blackface racism.

Both blackface and drag queen camp performances are part of the rich history of the theater arts that should not be censored, but preserved in a proper context as lessons for future generations.

Free speech that disgusts or offends anyone, which is not libel or slander, should be countered only with more free speech instead of with punishment or censorship.

(Quoted from Thomas Kraemer, "Hypocritical Reaction," Eugene Weekly "Letters to the Editor 2016-11-17" posted Nov. 17, 2016)

Due to the space constraints of a letter to the editor, I was unable to expand on why I listed only the exceptions of "libel or slander," and not obscenity, to speech that could legitimately be punished because such speech can actually harm others. Many U.S. Supreme Court decisions on free speech have carved out several exceptions to the First Amendment rights in these areas and I generally agree with their decisions, except for the decisions that have allowed the censorship of some speech concerning homosexuals as being obscene. (See previous post OSU Foundation Magnus Hirschfeld Fund Agreement (1/4/12) for a photo of the Nazi book burning mentioned in my letter.)

Another letter on this subject published in my local professional daily newspaper was by P.M. deLaubenfels, "Letter: A casualty of political correctness," posted Nov 8, 2016 -- his mocking tone might be misinterpreted by some people as being either for or against free speech.

An overview history of blackface and TV shows can be found in the following articles:

  • ""Blackface" accessed Nov. 9, 2016, says, "Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used by non-black performers to represent a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the spread of racial stereotypes such as the "happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation" or the 'dandified coon.'"
  • "Amos 'n' Andy," accessed Nov. 9, 2016 says, "A television adaptation ran on CBS (1951-53) and continued in syndicated reruns (1954-66). It would not be shown to a nationwide audience again until 2012."

The Corvallis, Oregon (home to Oregon State University 40 miles north of Eugene) professional newspaper editorial by Mike McNally also supported the professor's freedom of speech:

"Shurtz remains on administrative leave. She has not resigned, and she should not. The university should not fire her, in part because such a decision would preclude an option that actually could prove to be useful to everyone concerned, and to the larger university community as well. Handled properly, this incident could help spark a discussion about how to have meaningful conversations about race and speech in America today. But that won't happen if the university shows Shurtz the door, washing away all those possible lessons in a wave of bitter recriminations and vicious finger-pointing." (Quoted from Staff, "Editorial: Lessons from UO's blackface incident," posted Nov. 16, 2016)

On a loosely related note also concerning freedom of speech, after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America, I was heartened to see students at the predominately conservative Oregon State University exercising their Constitutional First Amendment rights of peaceful assembly to protest against the election of Donald Trump -- something I haven't seen at OSU since the Vietnam War era. It has given me hope about the future of America, despite the mean-spirited rhetoric of Donald Trump that I find disgusting. (See OSU student newspaper article by Valerie Maule, "Over 400 students attended peace rally on OSU campus," Barometer, Nov. 10, 2016 and the WR121 writing class essay by "Raising their voices, Brian Rathbone, Speaking out, Richard Steeves, Free speech, . . ." OSU Barometer, Nov. 14, 2016, p. 1, 3, 8-14, 16 that was part of several essays printed as an "academic supplement" inside the student paper. (Note: The faculty member driving WR121 convinced the student paper to use the term "academic supplement" instead of "paid advertisement" as they used before. (See previous post OSU 'I am gay' writing class essay printed as paid advertisement in student newspaper (11/24/15))