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How Can I Teach When I’m Not Allowed to Shut Down Trolls?

I’m a professor at a branch campus of a large state-university system in a state that has passed — and is planning to pass more — laws dictating what (and how) we can teach in our classrooms. These laws are intentionally vague and allow almost any material related to several important topics to be called into question. This has emboldened a small but very vocal part of our student body to disrupt classrooms whenever issues of race, gender, religion or sexuality are raised.

I’m a tenured, popular professor, and I’m not worried that engaging with this material puts my job in danger. Even if I were, I don’t think that would be an ethical reason not to teach it. I am, however, noticing that a new willingness on the part of that small minority of students to say blatantly racist or bigoted things is taking a toll on the other students, particularly those whose identities are implicated in the discussion. In the past, I would simply have shut down inappropriate discussions, but I’m no longer legally allowed to do so, and the administration has made it clear that they would not support any professor who does so.

My question, then, is whether it’s ethical to continue to teach material I know will expose students to bigoted, racist speech from their classmates, with whom they will then be expected to maintain a collegial working relationship. In a nutshell, if teaching the poet and activist Audre Lorde means forcing Black, queer and female students to endure racist, homophobic, misogynistic comments from their classmates, is it still ethical to teach Audre Lorde? Name Withheld

The classroom is a place where students should indeed be free to express their views at appropriate times on relevant topics. But the norms of pedagogy have always regulated classroom speech: Students don’t have the right to interrupt or to go on too long or to stray from the subject. Sometimes teachers, in turn, have a duty to explain what is wrong with the content of a student’s comments or the manner in which it’s expressed. This, too, is part of the free exchange of ideas that these higher-education laws purport to support.

A consistent application of this principle does not shield students from being told that their remarks are racist or sexist or homophobic and that these things are wrong. (And yes, I know consistency is not a hallmark of legislators in states like yours, who in other respects seem eager to restrict academic freedom.) Teachers should defend such claims with reasons and encourage their students to do the same. You are in the business not of telling them what they must think but of offering arguments that will allow them to reach their own conclusions.

There’s also the reality that some things people say have the effect of interfering with the learning of others. It’s very hard to think clearly when you feel categorically derogated. How to reduce these effects? One thing that may help is to exercise your freedom of expression by explaining your approach at the start of the class, even on the syllabus.

I don’t know the nature of your courses, but here are some things you might tell your students: That you’ll set aside time for discussion in class and that they are welcome to say whatever they think in those discussions, if it’s on topic. That because your aim is to have as many students participate as possible, you may sometimes have to cut them off. That the material in your course may raise issues that are contentious in your community, and some people may choose to say things that are upsetting or offensive to others. That other students should feel free to object and to explain their objections. That no sincerely offered and relevant position is out of bounds, but that you hope students will express their views respectfully and with an awareness that when they cause offense to others, they can make it harder for classmates to learn and to participate. That when a student says something that you believe is wrong and offensive, you will sometimes point this out, and if you do so, you will explain why.

Whether something is properly viewed as offensive may itself be a matter of controversy, of course, but a college class should train people to defend their views, even on controversial matters, not to avoid controversy. If you prepare your students for the sort of episode you’re concerned about by giving them permission to respond, you’ll also empower students who share any of Audre Lorde’s many identities — queer, Black, woman, outsider — to use the same freedoms your legislators espouse to speak up for themselves. In “Sister Outsider,” Lorde wrote, “Your silence will not protect you.” When bigotry speaks, we should learn to speak back.

My sibling is brilliant and hard-working and a devoted partner who has, at times, been abusive to me (leveling baseless allegations) and neglectful of our mother, who died of cancer midpandemic (declining to visit her near the end and refusing to take the calls she made to say goodbye). My sibling has a mental-health disorder but is, I believe, unmedicated and no longer under the regular care of a physician. My sibling may dislike me but reserves white-hot hate for our father, who abandoned our mother some time ago, after a lifetime of infidelity.

My father would like to “make peace” with my sibling and has asked that I write a letter he can sign his name to; he has medical conditions that make reading and writing difficult. I have declined, stating that it should be his words and that someone else could take the dictation. He has indicated he would visit my sibling, demanding an audience, although my sibling has said that any visit would be unwelcome.

Knowing my sibling’s mental illness, am I ethically responsible for giving warning of my father’s possible visit? Name Withheld

It’s not your responsibility to warn your sibling of a possible visit from your father, unless there’s a serious risk of harm associated with not doing so. But neither are you obliged to keep quiet about your father’s plan (unless, again, revealing it would risk harm). You need to decide not what you must do but what it would be best to do. If you think the chances of the visit going well are increased by forewarning your sibling, you have a good reason to do so. And of course, if you think the visit is a terrible idea, you should try to talk your father out of it.

But let me pose two questions you didn’t ask: Would it be good to assist your father in writing a letter to your sibling? Is there any chance that it would be helpful to one or the other or both? You’ll be in the best position to judge. If it could make things better, rather than worse, you may want to pitch in after all. Were you to do so, I see no reason to conceal your assistance. You can write that he has asked you to help him compose a letter, because he can’t do it himself, and then work out with your father what he wants to say.

Recently a woman contacted my adult children to tell them that, using results from 23andMe and other information, she traced her paternity to their father, my late ex-husband. He conceived this child several years before we met but apparently never knew she existed. (At least he never told me about her.) Her birth mother gave her up for adoption when she was an infant, and she has spent many years trying to find her roots. She has initiated relationships with my children and their families and expressed an interest in meeting me, presumably to learn more about her biological father.

While I am close to my children and try to follow what goes on in their lives, I have no desire to get to know this woman. Do I have a moral obligation to meet her? Name Withheld

The usual way a mother gets to know her stepchildren is through her spouse, but that connection doesn’t exist here. And this woman has already learned about her biological father from her half-siblings; you’re not the only one who can provide that information. All this means that you’re off the hook. Still, her biological ancestry is obviously important to her, and I imagine she thinks she can learn things about her progenitor through you that she can’t learn from anyone else. So while you don’t have an obligation to answer her questions, it would surely be a kindness to do so.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to ethicist@nytimes.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

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