The New York Times is reporting that a Rutgers Law Professor and law student are under fire after the student reluctantly read the n-word in a 1993 legal opinion. It is the latest such controversy in high education.
I am assuming that the professor and students were discussing State v. Bridges, which begins with this background discussion:
“On September 2, 1988, defendant, Bennie Eugene Bridges, attended a birthday party with some fifty to sixty young people for sixteen-year-old Cheryl Smith in the basement of her home in Roebling, New Jersey. At about 12 a.m., Bridges had an argument with another guest, Andy Strickland. Shortly after the heated exchange, Bridges left the party, yelling angrily into the basement that he would soon return with his “boys.” As he drove past the house on his way to Trenton, Bridges again shouted, “I’m going back to Trenton to get my [n*****s.]”
In the virtual discussion, the student states “He said, um — and I’ll use a racial word, but it’s a quote. He says, ‘I’m going to go to Trenton and come back with my [expletive]s.”
That triggers a petition from students to demand action from the law school and apologies from both the professor and the student. The students declared that “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.”
Professor Vera Bergelson denied hearing the word but apologized, declaring “I wish I could go back in time to that office hour and confront it directly.” She added “There is no doubt in my mind that the student had no racist intent, and the fact that, given a chance, I would have corrected the student reflects only my personal pedagogical choices and not any doubt in the student’s good faith.”
We have been discussing professors who have been investigated or sanctioned for the use of the “n-word” in classes or tests at Georgetown, Duquesne, John Marshall, Augsberg, Chicago, DePaul, Princeton, Kansas, and other schools. There were also recent incidents at Wake Forest and Emory.
In my view, this should remain a decision for professors based on academic freedom and the specific context of the use. Some professors have read the word in literary or historical passages. The removal of such terms and images in a class addressing racism can substantially change and undermine a professor’s treatment of the subject. It is analogous to decision of the Yale University Press when it published Jytte Klausen’s “The Cartoons That Shook the World” (on the cartoons that led to riots and over 200 killed in protests worldwide). Yale removed the 12 cartoons from the book so not to insult Muslims. Thus, you could read the book but not actually see the cartoons themselves. The question of how central this word is to a lesson is highly contextual. Faculty have been particularly reluctant to edited passages from classic works like the recent controversy over the writings of Mark Twain.
This is not the only law student under fire this week for controversial or offensive language. A law student at Abertay University in Scotland is facing discipline for the allegedly “offensive” and “discriminatory” statements. According to Daily Mail, Lisa Keogh is a mother of two who was taking part in a virtual class on “gender feminism and the law.” The class addressed transgender issues and Keogh expressed her view that allowing transgender athletes to compete against women was unfair — a view shared by many. She referred to women as being physically weaker as a gender and that a 32-year-old trans woman who had testosterone in her body all those years “would be genetically stronger than the average woman.” She also reportedly responded to another student calling men rapists as an example of “man-hating feminists.”
There were obviously strong statements on both sides of the issue in the class. However, Keogh is facing possible discipline for speaking frankly about her views on the subject. As faculty members, we try to steer such exchanges into more civil and tolerant expressions. It is common for some students to cross the line on these subjects but there is value in all sides being able to be open about their views, including their biases. The best way to change minds is to be able deal directly with such views and rhetoric in a dialogue. College is a place for students to meet others with a myriad of different experiences and values. Hopefully, such exposure leads to a better understanding of the views of others and even evolution of one’s own assumptions.
The concern is that these investigations create a chilling effect on speech in our classrooms. We previously discussed a Gallup poll showing ninety percent of Pomona students said that they did not feel free to speak openly or freely. It is an indictment of not just Pomona but many of our colleges. This is not a problem for many students but an increasingly small percentage of self-identified conservatives. Another Harvard study showed that 35 percent of conservatives felt that they could share their views on campus.
Returning to the Rutgers controversy, there is a real value to discussing the issues facing faculty over the use of this term. Despite all of these controversies, there is rarely a full discussion of the issue. Many universities do not expressly bar the use of this word in historical or other documents. Faculty face different issues when considering the use of the word in a literary passage as opposed to a hypothetical. Many faculty do not want to remove words from literary or historical texts but to teach them as reflective of their times. That does not make them racists.
I do not use the term because I do not believe that it is necessary for the cases and material that I teach despite my teaching issues of discrimination in tort and constitutional cases. Yet, I believe that the previously mentioned faculty had good-faith and non-racist motives for the use of the term in their own classrooms. Admittedly, as many on this blog know, I tend to taken a more robust view of academic freedom and free speech. However, I sincerely wish we could have a civil and substantive discussion of this issue rather than speak only through petitions or across protest lines.