We recently discussed the cancellation of a Princeton class on oppressive language when the professor used the n-word. I was strongly critical of actions in the controversy and the ultimate cancellation as an attack on both academic freedom and a reflection of the loss of objectivity on our campuses. Now, law students have made a similar complaint to DePaul University. Professor Donald Hermann is under fire for using the word in a hypothetical. It is particularly distressing to see law students objecting to the use of this word, which arises often in legal cases and was used for a legitimate purpose by Professor Hermann.
We previously discussed DePaul University’s failure to protect free speech on campus, but this controversy attacks the very heart of academic freedom and objectivity.
The hypothetical in the class was fairly conventional: A white supremacist at a funeral of a civil rights leader uses the N-word, causing the crowd to come after him. If the white supremacist shoots and kills someone, can he claim self-defense?
Ironically, Hermann’s view was that the white supremacist is guilty of murder because he was the aggressor with his use of the racial slur.
Students have also objected to Hermann’s use of other disparaging terms in his class discussion.
Hopefully the law school will be more supportive of free speech and academic freedom than the university as a whole in this controversy. What concerns me is that students are now coming to our graduate schools after being taught that they should be insulated from then insults, slurs, and opposing views in the world. Even in seeking to join a profession that deals with those issues, they want to sanitize the facts to avoid insult or discomfort. We work as lawyers in the real world and address real problems like the one that Professor Hermann was trying to explore in his class. That is a valuable lesson in itself.