Humankind v. Mankind: Freedom of Speech and Classroom Policies, by Katy Sperry

Recently my university got national spotlight because an alt right (read: nazi) website posted an article about a professor deducting a single point from a student’s essay for using the word “mankind” twice. A faculty member of the English department is being sent threats of death and rape for enforcing MLA language guidelines.

The students’ protesting this point deduction proclaim that their freedom of speech is being challenged by faculty enforcing gender-neutral language in their classes. As previously mentioned, “humankind” is the term recommended to refer to all mankind by the MLA. But, aside from this, I think it is important to talk about what free speech does not mean.

Free speech is not the ability to say whatever you like in any context, specifically inside the context of things like classrooms and places of employment. When you work at McDonald’s you cannot come to work wearing a Burger King uniform. There are rules and guidelines in life, and it’s important to be able to think critically about the difference between a removal of rights and an enforcement of guidelines and policies.

In the classroom, instructors enforce their syllabus’ policies. Policies concerning academic language and discourse are outlined on the course syllabus when necessary. The aforementioned faculty member did not tell the student they could not use the term outside of class or even that they could not use it in class. Rather, the faculty member clearly described the guidelines of the course in the syllabus and explained to the student that a failure to follow guidelines would result in grade reduction. This is the way school works, whether it is high school, trade school, or a four-year university. There are policies and guidelines that are enforced by the entire university and policies enforced in every individual classroom.

I work at the public library, and I am not allowed to take a political stance at work, so if I come to work carrying my “kiss my ass [democratic party logo]” sticker on my water bottle, my boss asks me to keep my water bottle in the back for the day. My boss isn’t taking away my freedom to use that water bottle outside of work, or even to step in the back and take a drink of water out of the view of patrons. Rather, she is enforcing the guidelines I agreed to when I got the job. If I don’t like it, I can use the water bottle anyway. But if I get fired for taking a political stance at work, that’s my fault, not hers.