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Chair of Facebook's new oversight board criticized for reading a racial slur at Stanford

Michael McConnell says he was trying to teach "the history of our founding honestly." But some law students say the incident raises questions about his judgment as he prepares to help oversee Facebook's content decisions.

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The controversy at Stanford comes at a fraught time for Facebook, as the company faces criticism over its response to President Trump's public threats against protesters in Minnesota.

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A Stanford law professor who is one of the co-chairs of Facebook's newly formed oversight board is facing criticism after he read a quote containing the "n-word" in class last week. The incident, which preceded a weekend of widespread protests over racial injustice in America, prompted Stanford's Black Law Students Association to write a letter to the entire Stanford law community, condemning Michael McConnell's actions. The Stanford Daily first reported on the controversy.

Now, some Stanford law students, and even some professors, are calling into question McConnell's judgment and Facebook's decision to appoint him as one of the heads of an organization that will oversee debates about speech on the world's biggest social platform.

According to Stanford law students Protocol spoke with, and McConnell's own public statement on the matter, he was teaching his Creation of the Constitution class over Zoom on May 27 when he read a passage that contained the racial slur in a quote he attributed to Patrick Henry. The students said McConnell turned off his video recording of the class while reading the passage.

"If there is one thing black students know, it's our own history," the Stanford Black Law Students Association letter reads. "Ahmaud Arbery is our history. Breonna Taylor is our history. George Floyd is our history. White men refusing to stop saying 'n-----' is our history."

Asked for comment, McConnell referred Protocol to his public statement, which he sent to the Stanford Law community over the weekend. "First, I hope everyone can understand that I made the pedagogical choice with good will — with the intention of teaching the history of our founding honestly," McConnell wrote in that statement. "Second, in light of the pain and upset that this has caused many students, whom I care deeply about, I will not use the word again in the future."

McConnell, a former U.S. Circuit judge and one-time prospect for the Supreme Court, is the lone conservative among the four co-chairs of Facebook's oversight board. He serves in that role alongside Columbia University Law professor Jamal Greene, former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and Catalina Botero Marino, a former special rapporteur for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The group was picked following a global search at Facebook. The co-chairs will be charged with appointing members to Facebook's oversight board, who then must decide whether Facebook was right or wrong in taking certain content off its platform or leaving it up. Central to that work will be the task of policing hate speech on the platform.

In a call with reporters following the announcement of his appointment, McConnell hinted at what are bound to be divisive decisions: "No one will be satisfied with the decisions that the oversight board makes in every case," McConnell said. "We won't please everyone."

The outcry at Stanford, however, underscores the fact that the people appointed to Facebook's board may turn out to be as controversial as the decisions they make.

Facebook didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment. But in a statement provided by the oversight board, McConnell's co-chair, Jamal Greene, wrote that he has "tremendous respect for [McConnell] as a person and a scholar."

"Striking the right tone in surfacing the ugliness of our constitutional history is a difficulty I myself have struggled with," Greene wrote. "While I might have made a different choice in this instance, I take professor McConnell at his word that he has learned from his experience, as we all must strive to do as educators."

The controversy comes at a fraught time for Facebook, as the company faces criticism over its response to President Trump's public threats against protesters in Minnesota. While Twitter affixed a warning label to the president's tweets, Facebook has declined to take action on them.

"I know many people are upset that we've left the president's posts up, but our position is that we should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies," Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post Friday. On Monday, Facebook employees staged a "virtual walkout" in protest.

These decisions on how Facebook should respond to potentially violative content are precisely the sort of calls that McConnell and his colleagues on the oversight board will be asked to make.

According to a student in McConnell's class and McConnell's account, McConnell was delivering a lecture on the ratification of the Constitution in Virginia when he read the offending quote. Before reading it, the student said McConnell turned off his class recording, only turning it on again after he read the quote. Students were notified that the recording had been turned off by an automated message on Zoom.

According to the student, McConnell's use of the word was met by stunned faces. "He just kind of moved on as if nothing really strange had happened," the student said. "He didn't provide any warning, context, condemnation or emphasis that this was abhorrent language."

At Stanford, this was not the only case of a professor using the n-word, even in the last year. In November 2019, another visiting lecturer at the law school used the word, spurring a similar outcry from students. In response to that incident, McConnell wrote to students condemning the use of the term.

"To my mind, political correctness as it exists in the modern university is a problem, because it can stifle discussion and silence minority views," McConnell wrote. "But that does not mean that all standards of civility should be dismissed as examples of 'political correctness.' The use of some terms, especially when blatant, intentional, extreme, or devoid of legitimate context, can also stifle discussion and silence minority views."

And in another instance in April, a professor was recorded using the slur in class. That video was disseminated widely, stoking outrage among students. The students Protocol spoke with said the fact that McConnell stopped the recording while reading the quote suggests he was trying to avoid a similarly viral moment.

"Given all the context of him using the word and turning off the recording in order to say it, not only is it offensive, not only is it behavior that's unfit for the classroom or for our campus, but it also demonstrates his poor judgment," said Aryn Frazier, co-president of Stanford's Black Law Students Association.

After that class, at least one student wrote to the dean of the law school with concerns. Shortly after, McConnell wrote a message to students with the subject line, "The horrific quotation from class today."

"I do not think history should be stripped of its ugliness," McConnell wrote. In a subsequent class, McConnell opened the floor to students to express their feelings on the issue. Following that class, McConnell wrote another message: "The discussion gave me a better understanding of how students have different reactions hearing a racial epithet read aloud in class, even in the context of explaining and condemning historical racist attitudes," he wrote.

Still, the students said they haven't received a formal apology.

McConnell's actions may not violate the oversight board's code of conduct, said Kate Klonick, an assistant professor of law at St. John's University, who has been studying the development of Facebook's oversight board. The board did lay out a system of removal for its members, Klonick noted, but that system is intentionally structured so that Facebook has no say in the decision.

"We wouldn't want Facebook to weigh in on this, because anytime Facebook doesn't like something a board member does, we don't want them to have the power to remove board members," Klonick said. "That's part of their independence."

The Stanford law students stopped short of prescribing a solution for Facebook. But they are trying to push for changes within their own university. For one, they want the school to adopt formal procedures to respond to and track incidents like these, as well as to implement training for professors who touch on racial injustice in their classes.

"Right now across the country, and right here in the Bay, protesters are getting tear-gassed, reporters are getting shot at with beanbags," Frazier said. "It's a moment when people are trying to use their First Amendment rights to show their frustration and push for change, and in the midst of all that, professor McConnell is using the n-word in the classroom."

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