University to Investigate Lecturer for Reading MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail

UCLA politics department condemns white lecturer for reading n-word, showing documentary addressing lynching

The campus of University of California at Los Angeles / Getty Images
June 6, 2020

The University of California Los Angeles has launched an inquiry into a teacher for reading aloud Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" because the civil rights document includes the n-word.

In a department-wide email obtained exclusively by the Washington Free Beacon, UCLA political science chair Michael Chwe and two other department leaders condemned lecturer W. Ajax Peris's use of the racially incendiary word in a lecture he was delivering about the history of racism against African Americans. UCLA officials said the department referred Peris, an Air Force veteran, to the university's Discrimination Prevention Office (DPO) and urged students to come forward with complaints. The email also faulted the postdoctoral lecturer for showing a documentary to the class in which a lynching is described and not stopping the presentation when students complained.

"The lecturer also showed a portion of a documentary which included graphic images and descriptions of lynching, with a narrator who quoted the n-word in explaining the history of lynching. Many students expressed distress and anger regarding the lecture and the lecturer's response to their concerns during the lecture," said the letter, which was signed by Chwe, vice chair for graduate studies Lorrie Frasure, and vice chair for undergraduate studies Chris Tausanovitch. "We share students' concerns that the lecturer did not simply pause and reassess their teaching pedagogy to meet the students' needs."

In a video taken by a UCLA student, Peris, who is white, can be heard reading King's celebrated letter written in the aftermath of the civil rights leader's arrest for demonstrating against Jim Crow laws. The letter was read in tandem with his lecture on the history of racism against African Americans in the United States.

Peris, who did not respond to a request for comment, issued written and video apologies to students following complaints. The apology has not stopped calls for his firing. On Thursday, protesters called on UCLA to terminate Peris, as well as an accounting professor who refused to delay or cancel final exams for minority students.

Neither UCLA nor the university DPO returned requests for comment.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) said the department's treatment of Peris could threaten academic freedom at the taxpayer-funded public university. FIRE spokeswoman Katlyn Patton said that the First Amendment should protect the lecturer from official sanction, though it would not safeguard him from "criticism by students, colleagues, or the community."

"Peris's academic freedom, as a faculty member at a public institution bound by the First Amendment, includes the right to decide whether and how to confront or discuss difficult or offensive material, including historical readings that document our nation's centuries-long history of racism," Patton said. "Doing so does not amount to unlawful discrimination or harassment, and the law is abundantly clear that UCLA could not investigate or punish a professor for exercising his expressive or academic freedom."

In addition to investigating the professor, UCLA will host a town hall on Tuesday, June 9, for students in Peris's classes to debrief on the controversy and "outline future next steps." The town hall will be led by Frasure, one of the authors of the department-wide email. Neither Chwe, Frasure, nor Tausanovitch responded to requests for comment.