Dinah PoKempner is the former general counsel for Human Rights Watch. She recently taught a class on hate speech in legal proceedings for the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. The adjunct instructor in repeatedly said the N-word while sharing an anecdote with her class.
The April 1st class concerned the “comparative legal treatment of hate speech,” and discussions touched upon the propriety of legal action against hate speech.
PoKempner shared an anecdote aimed at demonstrating a broader point in the class. She explicitly used the N-word several times. She laughed and switched between “voices.” Students tried unsuccessfully to discuss with PoKempner why her language had crossed classroom boundaries. Numerous students reported the incident to school officials.
GC Repeated N-Word Dialogue from Ku Klux Klan Leaders
When PoKempner thought that the example of a European journalist’s prosecution for an interview conducted with racists would be hard for her students to grasp, she used a personal anecdote that had taken place in the U.S. PoKempner used the N-word as she repeated dialogue from Ku Klux Klan leaders, a lawyer, and her own colleague.
“To help them understand how the issue might look in a US context, I related something I once observed, where a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, deposing a member of the Ku Klux Klan in a civil rights case, tried to get the witness to open up by leaning into a down-home accent and using the N-word repeatedly in questioning,” PoKempner wrote in a statement to the Columbia Daily Spectator, a daily newspaper for Columbia University.
“Unfortunately, the voices of the lawyer and his deponent were graven in my memory, and I did not edit as I spoke, using the original, racist N-word term. Students were understandably shocked, and they explained eloquently and patiently why they objected to use of the word.”
Many students in the class thought that PoKempner’s anecdote was tangential to the broader point of the class and were shocked by her repeated use of the N-word—over the course of the 90-second story where she used the N-word 11 times.
PoKempner continued teaching for 20 minutes when the students asked that she address what had taken place. A class discussion ensued. PoKempner asked how many students in the class had called them a slur before. She also asked whether those incidents took place over the last three years or at Columbia.
PoKempner Doesn’t Mute Herself on Break from the Class
After she and the students concluded that the discussion had become unproductive, the class took a break. During the break, PoKempner forgot to mute herself. The students overheard her relating what had happened to another person—once again using the N-word multiple times. One student said that PoKempner argued that “the academic environment allows for this language.”
“It was pretty obvious that she didn’t know she had left her mic on, from the first moment she said, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.’ She was talking with a male voice in the background. She explained the situation to him and in explaining the situation she repeated the N-word and … he said, ‘This can get really big,’ and she said, ‘I know,’ and they laughed about it,” the student said.
Students Met to Discuss Next Steps
After class, some of the students on the Zoom call met to discuss next steps. Their first priority was downloading a recording of the class. They planned to submit it to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. They also filed with the EOAA, Office of Multicultural Affairs . Further, they write a letter to the Institute for the Study of Human Rights.
PoKempner’s students’ formal complaints remain under review, but students received an email from Elazar Barkan, director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights recently in which Barkan acknowledged students’ concerns about their abilities to attend class meetings and submit remaining assignments and exams, noting general “anxiety about the course as a result of this episode.”
Inga Winkler, director of undergraduate studies for the program, will be overseeing the grading of the remaining coursework and calculation of final grades. The school allowed PoKempner to hold the next class, but Winkler was also to be available at a separate time for closing discussions.
Human Rights Watch fired Dinah PoKempner as its general counsel the following week.