University cultural instructor warns against saying ‘illegal aliens,’ ‘male’ and ‘female’

A cultural studies instructor at Washington State University has warned her students that they could face disciplinary action -- and in some cases, failure of her class -- if they use certain terms she deems unacceptable, including “illegal aliens,” “tranny” and the words “males” and “females” to refer to men and women.

The instructor’s remarks, contained in a recent class syllabus for a fall semester course titled “Women & Popular Culture,” have ignited an online debate on a number of conservative blogs and news sites after being reported on the site Campus Reform.

Terms such as those outlined in the syllabus are frowned upon by a number of prominent institutions, including The Times, whose style guide doesn’t allow “illegal aliens” or “tranny,” and prefers “men” and “women” over “male” and “female.”

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But the penalties laid out by the instructor are unusual and have struck some as an excessively harsh form of enforcement.

When reached for comment, the university said in a statement that it is working with faculty members to ensure that “students’ free speech rights are recognized and protected.” It said that “no student will have points docked merely as a result of using terms that may be deemed offensive to some.”

In the syllabus, which is available online, graduate teaching instructor Selena Lester Breikss writes that the “use of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, classist, or generally offensive language in class or submission of such material will not be tolerated.”

Other words and terms she classifies as unacceptable for the classroom: “The Man” and “colored people.”

“If I see it or hear it, I will correct it in class since it can be a learning moment for many students,” Lester Breikss writes in the syllabus.

“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.”

Lester Breikss is listed as a staff member of the university’s department of critical culture, gender and race studies. She and the department chair, professor David J. Leonard, referred questions to the university’s head of communications, who sent a statement via email.

In the statement, the university said that 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.”

The statement continued: “We are working with these faculty members to clarify, and in some cases, modify, course policies to ensure that” free speech is recognized and protected.

“Blanket restriction of the use of certain terms is not consistent with the values which this university is founded,” the school said.

Other syllabi cited by the Campus Reform site include one for a Washington State University class called Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies. In that syllabus, the instructor, Rebecca Fowler, states that points will be deducted from a student’s final grade as a penalty for using terms such as “illegal alien” and “illegals.”

The ruckus has generated lively debate on a number of conservative news sites, where some view it as a form of extreme political correctness that threatens freedom of speech. The Daily Caller stated that the instructors are “flatly censoring politically incorrect terms.”

A commentator for the site Young Conservatives wrote that “college, in theory, is supposed to be a place that allows the free and flowing exchange of different opinions. ... That’s a fantasy in today’s society.”

The online furor is the latest example of what some see as the encroachment of political correctness on university and college campuses throughout the country.

Some schools have been criticized for backing “trigger warnings” -- alerts placed on class material to signal potentially upsetting content -- and for promulgating the notion of “microagressions,” small social insults that could cause emotional distress.

Washington State University is a public institution whose main campus is in Pullman, Wash.

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT