A distinguished Jewish professor at Princeton University has had to cancel a course on hate speech because students were offended by hateful terms.

Professor Emeritus Lawrence Rosen, an esteemed anthropologist, had several students walk out when he asked them: “Which is more provocative: a white man walks up to a black man and punches him in the nose, or a white man walks up to a black man and calls him [the racial slur]?”

Colleagues and University bosses backed Rosen fully, noting that he had run the same course and asked the same thought-provoking question for years without having students walk out.

“The values of free speech and inclusivity are central to Princeton University’s mission and critical to the education we provide to our students,” said the University in a statement.

“The conversations and disagreements that took place in the seminar led by Professor Rosen are part of the vigorous engagement and robust debate that are central to what we do.”

University President Christopher Eisgruber said it was “very important for our culture to have academic freedom that allows people to have pedagogical choices on how to teach difficult subjects”.

He added: “I respect Professor Rosen’s decision about how to teach the subject in the way that he did by being explicit and using very difficult words.”

The University’s Anthropology head Carolyn Rouse said she hoped Rosen’s students would soon be able to argue why hate speech should or should not be protected using an argument other than “it made me feel bad”.

She added: “Professor Rosen was fighting battles for women, Native Americans and African-Americans before these students were born. He grew up a Jew in anti-Semitic America, and recognises how law has afforded him rights he would not otherwise have.”