Paul L. Caron

Monday, May 3, 2021

NY Times: Debate Erupts At Rutgers Law School After White Student Quotes Racial Slur In Full Version Of Case Assigned In Excerpted Form By Professor

New York Times, Debate Erupts at N.J. Law School After White Student Quotes Racial Slur:

Rutgers (2021)The controversy over the use of a racial slur that has embroiled a public law school in New Jersey began with a student quoting from case law during a professor’s virtual office hours.

The first-year student at Rutgers Law School in Newark, who is white, repeated a line from a 1993 legal opinion, including the epithet, when discussing a case.

What followed has jolted the state institution, unleashing a polarizing debate over the constitutional right to free speech on campus and the power of a hateful word at a moment of intense national introspection over race, equity and systemic bias.

The tension comes at a time of heightened sensitivity to offensive words on college and law school campuses, where recent uses of slurs by professors during lessons have resulted in discipline and dismissal.

In early April, in response to the incident, a group of Black first-year students at Rutgers Law began circulating a petition calling for the creation of a policy on racial slurs and formal, public apologies from the student and the professor, Vera Bergelson.

“At the height of a ‘racial reckoning,’ a responsible adult should know not to use a racial slur regardless of its use in a 1993 opinion,” states the petition, which has been signed by law school students and campus organizations across the country.

“We vehemently condemn the use of the N-word by the student and the acquiescence of its usage,” the petition says. ...

Recent faculty meetings — including one held the day after a police officer was convicted of killing George Floyd — have been marked by heated exchanges, participants said. A racial healing session that was organized by students was filled with raw emotion. The student who uttered the slur is distraught, professors said, and has enlisted the help of a lawyer known for her expertise in free speech and due process. ...

On Friday, a faculty meeting included a discussion about whether to voluntarily bar racial epithets from being spoken in class, even if citing legal documents verbatim, as Professor Lopez has requested be done.

“I share the views of several of our faculty members who understand and express to their students that this language is hateful and can be triggering, even in the context of a case, and ask that it not be used,” he wrote in an email to the school community soon after the petition began circulating. ...

Among the professors who have signed a statement in support of Professor Bergelson and the student are some of the school’s most prominent faculty members, including John Farmer Jr., a former New Jersey attorney general, and Ronald K. Chen, the state’s onetime public advocate. Both are former deans of Rutgers Law School.

“Although we all deplore the use of racist epithets,” said Gary L. Francione, a law professor who also signed the statement, “the idea that a faculty member or law student cannot quote a published court decision that itself quotes a racial or other otherwise objectionable word as part of the record of the case is problematic and implicates matters of academic freedom and free speech.” ...

“I don’t think the Law School should have rules that are stricter than the Constitution of the United States,” said Dennis

M. Patterson, a professor.

Professor Lopez and his co-dean, Kimberly Mutcherson, said in a statement that the discussion underway had nothing to do with “stifling academic freedom, ignoring the First Amendment, or banning words.”

Rather, they said, it was about “how best to create classroom environments in which all of our students feel seen, heard, valued and respected.” ...

The controversy began on Oct. 28, after a criminal law class all first-year students are required to take. In discussing the circumstances under which a criminal defendant could be held liable for crimes committed by his co-conspirators, the student repeated a quote from a defendant that appeared in an opinion written by a former State Supreme Court judge, Alan B. Handler.

“He said, um — and I’ll use a racial word, but it’s a quote,” the student said, according to a summary of the incident written by professors. “He says, ‘I’m going to go to Trenton and come back with my [expletive]s.” ...

The faculty discussions, held by videoconference, have been fraught, he said.

“I can’t imagine a less hospitable setting than a 100-person Zoom call to discuss racism,” he said. “It’s a demoralizing time for everyone involved.”

New York Times op-ed:  How the N-Word Became Unsayable, by John McWhorter (Columbia):

I sense myself as pushing the envelope, even though I am Black — and feel a need to state that for the sake of clarity and concision, I will be writing the word freely, rather than “the N-word.” I will not use the word gratuitously, but that will nevertheless leave a great many times I do spell it out, love it though I shall not. ...

[T]he transition to “the N-word” wasn’t driven by the linguistic coarseness of a Los Angeles detective [Mark Fuhrman] or something a prosecutor [Christopher Darden] said one day during a monthslong trial. Rather, Mr. Darden’s reticence was a symptom of something already in the air by 1995: the larger shift in sensibility that rendered slurs, in general, the new profanity.

This occurred as Generation X, born from about 1965 to 1980, came of age. These were the first Americans raised in post-civil-rights-era America. To Generation X, legalized segregation was a bygone barbarism in black-and-white photos and film clips. Also, Generation X grew up when overt racist attitudes came to be ridiculed and socially punished in general society. Racism continued to exist in endless manifestations. However, it became complicated — something to hide, to dissemble about and, among at least an enlightened cohort, something to check oneself for and call out in others, to a degree unknown in perhaps any society until then.

For Americans of this postcountercultural cohort, the pox on matters of God and the body seemed quaint beyond discussion, while a pox on matters of slurring groups seemed urgent beyond discussion. The N-word euphemism was an organic outcome, as was an increasing consensus that “******” itself is forbidden not only in use as a slur but even when referred to. Our spontaneous sense is that profanity consists of the classic four-letter words, while slurs are something separate. However, anthropological reality is that today, slurs have become our profanity: repellent to our senses, rendering even words that sound like them suspicious and eliciting not only censure but also punishment.

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