Jun 1, 2020 - Technology

Facebook oversight board leader sparks Stanford speech controversy

Photo of a bicycle parked outside an iconic Stanford University campus building

Stanford campus. Photo: David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images

A Stanford law professor who co-chairs the newly created independent oversight board tasked with reviewing the toughest issues related to Facebook is embroiled in a free speech controversy of his own.

Driving the news: Michael McConnell, a scholar and former federal judge with a conservative-libertarian bent, recently read his class a quote that included a racial epithet used historically to slur African Americans, prompting wide discussion on campus and a letter from the Black Law Students Association.

Why it matters: McConnell's use of the word comes amid a broader national discussion about race and police brutality in the wake of several killings of black men at the hands of law enforcement.

The big picture: The oversight board, composed initially of 20 members, is coming online later this year with a mandate to help Facebook resolve the thorniest conflicts over free expression on its platform around the world.

Details: Last Wednesday, in one of the final classes of the semester, McConnell read a quote attributed to Patrick Henry that included the N-word during a discussion of how racism and slavery were discussed during the writing of the Constitution.

Of note: According to Stanford's Black Law Students Association, McConnell paused the recording of the Zoom lesson during that portion of the class where the n-word was used.

In an email to the Stanford community, McConnell defended his logic in using the word but said he would not do so again.

  • "While some have expressed support," he wrote, "I understand that many people, both students and colleagues, disagree with my decision. ... In light of the pain and upset this has caused many students, whom I care deeply about, I will not use the word again in the future."

What they're saying:

  • A spokesperson for the Oversight Board, in a statement to Axios: "We respect the right of the students to speak out about how Michael’s use of this word has impacted them, and appreciate Michael's explanation of his pedagogic purpose, as well as his commitment not to use the word again. The Oversight Board is committed to ensuring respect for free expression and human rights. Our members come from around the world and the Board’s diversity is its core strength."
  • Stanford Law School Dean Jenny Martinez: "Although I strongly disagree with his quotation of the word, he did this for what he believed to be a legitimate pedagogical purpose: to underline the role of racism and slavery in the formation of the U.S. Constitution." Martinez acknowledged that for many, that educational benefit is outweighed by the pain of the word and its legacy, especially with recent events. "He assured me he has learned from these conversations and that he will not use this epithet in his teaching in the future."
  • Jamal Greene, another board co-chair and a Columbia Law School professor: "Striking the right tone in surfacing the ugliness of our constitutional history is a difficulty I myself have struggled with. While I might have made a different choice in this instance, I take Professor McConnell at his word that he has learned from his experience, as we all must strive to do as educators."
  • Letter from the Black Law Students Association: “If there is one thing black students know, it’s our own history. Ahmaud Arbery is our history. Breonna Taylor is our history. George Floyd is our history. White men refusing to stop saying [the N-word] is our history."
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