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The Nuances of Free Speech Reflected in Debate Over UPenn Professor

The University of Pennsylvania's law school dean has filed a complaint and requested a faculty hearing to consider sanctions against Amy Wax, a law school professor. The dean states Wax has violated the University's nondiscrimination policies and "standards of professional competence." Among her public statements, Wax has asserted that "on average, Blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites, and the U.S. is "better off with fewer Asians." She has also said, "There are not too many Black people in prison, there are too few." In addition, students allege they have experienced racist incidents with Wax. A Black law student, who also attended Yale, says Wax told the student that she "had only become a double Ivy 'because of affirmative action.'" Other students have complained about Wax saying “Negro” in a “snide and smug” way and referring to a Black man with a “distasteful” tone. Many students question whether Wax can treat non-conservative, nonwhite students fairly.

At the heart of the debate are the parameters of academic freedom. The dean's formal complaint against Wax is unusual but not the first objection to her on campus. In 2017, thirty-three law professors wrote an open letter objecting to Wax's views about cultural superiority but supporting her right to express those views. One of the professors told the New York Times that Wax tried to pressure him to retract that letter, and when he refused, she threatened to publicize the online negative responses. Wax went through with her threat and portrayed the professor as a crusher of free speech in a viral video. The professor opined Wax uses speech as a "sword and shield, portraying herself as the victim of cancel culture, while also trying to create a 'safe-space bubble of protection from others' reactions." Nevertheless, this professor does support Wax's right to express her "horrible views."

Many free speech groups also support Wax’s right to say what she believes as part of academic freedom. They particularly support that right in off-campus forums. If some allegations about her direct interactions with students are true, they concede those comments may violate the institution's code of conduct.