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U of Oklahoma staff workshop teaches professors how to censor students’ ‘problematic’ views without repercussions

Katelynn Richardson, Campus Reform

The University of Oklahoma hosted a staff workshop counseling professors on how to restrict student speech deemed “derogatory” or “hate speech” in the classroom.

A recording of the “Anti-Racist Rhetoric & Pedagogies” workshop – which was one of nine professional development workshops UO offered to staff and graduate students during Spring 2021 – was obtained by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and released on Tuesday.

“You do not need to worry about repercussions at any degree in the university if you are responding to a student who is using problematic language in the classroom,” said Kasey Woody, one of the workshop leaders.

Kelli Pyron Alvarez, another leader, claimed that the Supreme Court has granted teachers this right.

“The Supreme Court has actually upheld that hate speech, derogatory speech, any of the -isms do not apply in the classroom because they do not foster a productive learning environment. And so, as instructors we can tell our students: ‘No, you do not have the right to say that. Stop talking right now,’ right?” she said.

Pyron Alvarez, who teaches introductory English courses, said that she calls out students who use derogatory remarks, hate speech, and “white supremacist ideas or sources” in writing or class comments. If they continue after being called out, she says it is appropriate to “report them.”

Neither workshop leader offered a clear definition of what kinds of speech fall under “hate speech.” But they did advise professors to have students whose arguments border on offensive “re-adjust” their topic.

In a statement provided to Campus Reform by the University of Oklahoma, Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Belinda Higgs Hyppolite affirmed that free expression and diversity of viewpoints are “central elements of the university’s strategic plan.”

“The workshop in question is one of many professional development workshops put on by the English Department’s Composition Program,” said Higgs Hyppolite, who also serves as the school’s Chief Diversity Officer. “The curriculum of the workshop is designed to address how instructors respond to and handle racist comments within the classroom environment.”

“OU is a place where students are taught how to learn, not what to learn,” she continued. “Every effort is made to ensure students feel that they belong.”

Kiara Kincaid, University of Oklahoma senior and UO Turning Point USA President, told Campus Reform she was “not surprised” to hear about the training.

“Even at the flagship university of one of the reddest states in the nation, the first amendment rights of students are under attack,” she said.

Although the university constantly “touts free speech protections,” Kiara said conservative students have been targeted for their beliefs, even when sharing nothing more than “their personal experiences.”

“In my freshman year of college, I took a public speaking class and our final assignment was to write and present a persuasive speech on any topic of our choice,” she said. “I chose to write about why America is the greatest country in the world.”

But her professor, despite being “very open about his political opinions since day one,” did not tolerate disagreement.

“The week before it was due, he asked me to stay after class to discuss my outline. He went line by line and told me why he disagreed with my arguments and the facts that I had presented. At the end of the meeting he told me that I needed to change the topic of my speech and if I chose not to, my grade would be a reflection of my decision,” she said.

After Kiara went forward with her original topic and delivered the 8-minute speech, her grade dropped, just as promised. “He told me I would thank him for that conversation in a few years,” she said.

When explaining how to help students choose research topics, leaders of the UO workshop similarly encouraged instructors to steer students towards “appropriate topics” if their choices are in “problematic territory.”

During the question portion, a participant posed the example of a student engaging in the preferred pronouns debate. Woody suggested having a conversation to lead the student away from the subject, but Pyron Alvarez rejected that possibility entirely.

“If they’re writing and their goal is like ‘Oh, I should be able to use whatever pronouns I deem acceptable for this person despite how they identify,’ then they are invalidating that person’s humanity and their existence,” she said. “And that’s not acceptable. So I flat out tell them that. This is what this is doing. You need to pick something else. You’re not doing that,” she said.

Kiara called the workshop and similar efforts to restrict student speech “deeply concerning and blatantly unconstitutional.”

“Colleges and Universities are meant to expose students to new ideas, to challenge them intellectually, and be a place of civil discourse in society,” she said. “Instead, these efforts are further dividing students from their peers and their professors leaving no room for intellectual and social growth.”

Academic freedom has been a recent conversation topic at the University of Oklahoma. In an email addressing Oklahoma’s bill banning Critical Race Theory, UO President Joseph Harroz told faculty that the university would fight to remain “fertile ground for the exchange of free ideas and the celebration of all forms of diversity,” according to the Oklahoman.

Kiara says conservative students simply want the same protections: the ability to participate in the “exchange of free ideas.”

“Conservative students at the University of Oklahoma support the protection of free speech, especially for those that disagree with us,” Kiara said. “All we ask is that our university provides us the same protections and will do everything in its power to honor our right to speak freely.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @katesrichardson

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