Washington State University in Spokane in 2003. (Peter G. Williams/AP)

Students walking into a class called “Women & Popular Culture” at Washington State University (WSU) this fall were perhaps prepared to think hard about about identity politics. After all, the class at the publicly-funded school of about 28,000 students is offered through the department of critical culture, gender and race studies.

But for some in the class the syllabus went too far. In a class that examined “the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality in film and media, and the social, political, economic, and cultural practices impact of these mediums,” some language, it said, was off-limits.

“Use of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, classist, or generally offensive language in class or submission of such material will not be tolerated,” professor Selena Lester Breikss’s syllabus read. “This includes ‘The Man,’ ‘Colored People,’ ‘Illegals/Illegal Aliens,’ ‘Tranny’ and so on — or referring to women/men as females or males.”

This wasn’t an idle warning.

“If I see it or hear it, I will correct it in class since it can be a learning moment for many students,” Breikss wrote. “Repeated use of oppressive and hateful language will be handled accordingly — including but not limited to removal from the class without attendance or participation points, failure of the assignment, and — in extreme cases — failure for the semester.”

Now, the school has issued a statement about First Amendment rights after a conservative publication reported on Breikss’s syllabus and others at WSU.

“Over the weekend, we became aware that some faculty members, in the interest of fostering a constructive climate for discussion, included language in class syllabi that has been interpreted as abridging students’ free speech rights,” a statement from WSU interim president Dan Bernardo read. “We are working with these faculty members to clarify, and in some cases modify, course policies to ensure that students’ free speech rights are recognized and protected. No student will have points docked merely as a result of using terms that may be deemed offensive to some.”

WSU’s alleged First Amendment abrogations were first reported by Campus Reform, a project of the conservative Leadership Institute. In a piece published Aug. 29, Campus Reform spotlighted Women & Popular Culture as well as a course called “Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies.” The syllabus for that course, taught by Rebecca Fowler, included a “A Note on [In]appropriate Terminology: Don’t use it.” The note read:

• Not “colored” person/s/people but “people of color.”

• Not “the white man” but “white men,” “white males,” or “white society”

• Not “illegal alien” or “illegals” but “undocumented” migrants/immigrants/persons. Note that the Associated Press (AP) has determined not to use it: ‘The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.’

And finally:

• If you use the above terms in your writing, your grade will suffer a deduction of one point per incident.

In an e-mail to Campus Reform, Fowler explained her thinking: “The term ‘illegal alien’ has permeated dominant discourses that circulate in the news to the extent that our society has come to associate ALL unauthorized border crossings with those immigrants originating from countries south of our border (and not with Asian immigrants, for example, many of whom are also in the country without legal documents and make up a considerable portion of undocumented immigrants living in the country).”

She added: “The socio-legal production of migrant illegality works to systematically dehumanize and exploit these brown bodies for their labor.”

Campus Reform also reported on the syllabus of “Introduction to Multicultural Literature,” taught by John Streamas — who, as noted by The Washington Post-affiliated Eugene Volokh way back in 2006, once got in trouble for calling a student a “white s—tbag.”

“Reflect on your own social location, your privileges and power,” Streamas wrote. “… Reflect your grasp of history and social relations by respecting shy and quiet classmates, and by deferring to the experiences of people of color.”

Streamas’s syllabus also targeted Glenn Beck.

“What makes a word vulgar or racist is its usage by a particular speaker in a particular context,” he wrote. “Insensitive whites such as Glenn Beck complain that, for example, they are not allowed to say the ‘n’ word without being labeled racist but that black men use it among themselves all the time. To ‘earn’ the right to that word, Beck must first endure 500 years of racism.”

While Campus Reform’s piece was a pretty straight news story, news of the syllabi was not received calmly in other conservative quarters. The Daily Caller’s headline: “Taxpayer-Funded Professors Censor Words ‘Female,’ ‘Illegal Alien’ And Make White Students ‘Defer.’”

“It’s back-to-school time, America,” Eric Owens of the Daily Caller wrote. “And you know what that means: Taxpayer-funded professors at public universities are flatly censoring politically-incorrect terms and requiring students with white skin to ‘defer’ to minority students.”

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