Paul L. Caron

Monday, May 31, 2021

'Bowdlerized Classroom Discussion Will Not Properly Prepare Law Students For The World As It Is'

Following up on my previous posts:

New Jersey Law Journal editorial, On the Rutgers Law Racial Slur Issue (May 30, 2021):

Bowdlerized classroom discussion will not properly prepare law students for the world as it is, however much they hope to make it a better place. ...

A furor has been raging at Rutgers Law School when a student in an online discussion quoted a racial slur that was reported in the Supreme Court decision in State v. Bridges, 133 N.J. 447 (1993). ... [T]he matter drew campus-wide attention early in April when some first-year law students circulated a petition calling for a school policy regarding racial slurs and for public apologies from both the student and the professor. The students demanding the petition and the apology had not attended the online session. ...

Once the petition was publicized, both the professor and the student who had cited the quote offered apologies. That did not seem to mollify those who were outraged. The entire campus, including the administration, has been affected by the controversy. There have been calls for prohibiting the very mention of racial epithets in classrooms, even if they appear in a written opinion. To its credit, the law school, in a letter from Co-Deans David Lopez and Kimberly Mutcherson to the Washington Post, stated that the school “embrace[s] the academic freedom that allows faculty to make individual decisions about the use of inflammatory language in their classrooms.”

Neither apologies nor a ban on discussing racial or ethnic slurs in the context of legal issues is warranted under these circumstances.

There is an obvious difference between expressing a derogatory epithet with intent to demean an individual or a group and quoting it in an academic discussion of its use by third persons. Law school, perhaps more than other academic settings, is an appropriate place to examine the use of words, including controversial ones. It would be impossible to discuss legal issues such as mass-media law and whether certain words should receive First Amendment protection or be consigned to unprotected exile alongside obscenity and so-called “fighting words” without citing the specific obscenities and slurs under scrutiny.

Law students are presumably mature individuals. One goal of their professional education is training them to put themselves in the place of the clients, witnesses and adversaries with whom they must deal. When they become practicing lawyers, they will be exposed to similar or worse language from these sources. Bowdlerized classroom discussion will not properly prepare them for the world as it is, however much they hope to make it a better place. While polite society should shun the use of such language, a prohibition on academic discussion will not advance the purpose of legal education.

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