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Debate erupts at NJ Law School after white students cite racial slurs

The controversy over the use of a racial slur that has confused a New Jersey public law school began with a student citing case law during a professor’s virtual office hours. The freshman at Rutgers Law School in Newark, who is white, repeated a line from a 1993 legal opinion, including the epithet, when reviewing a case. What followed rocked the state institution, sparking a polarizing debate over the constitutional right to free speech on campus and the power of a hate word at a time of intense national introspection on race, the equity and systemic bias. Sign up for The Morning New York Times newsletter The tension comes at a time of heightened sensitivity to offensive language on college and law school campuses, where recent use of insults by professors during class has 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 official and public apologies from the student and professor, Vera Bergelson. “At the height of a ‘racial calculation’ a responsible adult should know not to use racial slurs regardless of its use in a 1993 notice,” says the petition, which was signed by students. in law and campus organizations across the country. . “We vehemently condemn the student’s use of the N word and acquiescence in its use,” the petition says. Bergelson, 59, said she did not hear the word spoken in the videoconference session, which three students attended after a criminal law class, and would have corrected the student if she had. . Shortly after the professor’s office hours in late October, a white classmate contacted the student who cited the epithet to tell her that she should have avoided using it. The student, a middle-aged woman studying law as a second career, offered her phone number for further discussion and also arranged a lengthy chat with the third student, her lawyer said. One of the students later told a black classmate about it; a recording of the meeting, which is no longer accessible, was discovered online and shared. Black students in the class who were offended by the insult expressed their concerns to another professor, who alerted a dean, David Lopez, shortly after the incident, several officials said. Bergelson said she was never made aware of her students’ objections, only learning them after the petition was released on April 6, five months later. Within days, she said, she called a meeting with the criminal law class and other freshmen to discuss the incident and issue an apology. The student, who has not been publicly identified, also apologized during the meeting. “I wish I could go back in time to that office hour and face it directly,” Bergelson said in an interview. Lopez apologized for not responding quickly to students’ concerns, a delay that contributed to their frustration and was cited in the petition. But that didn’t do much to ease the tension. Recent faculty meetings – including one held the day after a police officer was convicted of the murder of George Floyd – have been marked by heated exchanges, participants said. A racial healing session hosted by students was filled with raw emotions. The student who delivered the insult is distraught, the professors said, and has enlisted the help of a lawyer known for his expertise in free speech and due process. A faculty meeting on Friday included a discussion about whether to voluntarily ban racial epithets from being spoken in class, even citing legal documents verbatim, as Lopez requested. “I share the point of view of many of our professors who understand and express to their students that this language is hateful and can be triggering, even in the context of a case, and I ask that it not be used”, he wrote in an email. to the school community shortly after the petition began circulating. Among the professors who signed a declaration in favor of Bergelson and the student were some of the school’s most prominent faculty members, including John Farmer Jr., former Attorney General of New Jersey, and Ronald K. Chen , former state public attorney. Both are former deans of Rutgers Law School. “While 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 not cite a published court decision that itself cites a racial or other character. otherwise objectionable words forming part of the case record are problematic and involve issues of academic freedom and freedom of expression. ” the petition said they were busy with final exams and would have no immediate comment beyond the petition. Any public use of a racial epithet may carry the risk of serious professional consequences. Central Michigan University’s journalism department was fired last year after using the same insult citing a lawsuit. An Emory University law school professor was m is on administrative leave for over a year after using the word in discussions with students about race. Rutgers officials prepared to speak openly about their opposition to student demands said the school, as a public institution, has a greater obligation to protect the right of students and teachers to free speech. “I don’t think law school should have stricter rules than the United States Constitution,” said Professor Dennis M. Patterson. Lopez and his co-dean, Kimberly Mutcherson, said in a statement that the ongoing discussion had nothing to do with “stifling academic freedom, ignoring the First Amendment, or banning words.” Rather, it was about “how to best create classroom environments in which all of our students feel seen, heard, valued and respected.” The controversy began on October 28, after a criminal law course that all first year students are required to take. Discussing the circumstances under which a criminal accused could be held responsible for crimes committed by his co-conspirators, the student repeated a quote from an accused who appeared in an opinion written by a former Supreme Court justice of the State, Alan B. Handler. “He said, uh – and I’ll use a racial word, but that’s a quote,” the student said, according to a faculty summary of the incident. “He said, ‘I’m going to go to Trenton and come back with my [expletive]s. Samantha Harris, the lawyer representing the woman, said the school would waive its responsibility to train lawyers if it encouraged teachers to avoid epithets in all settings. “When you’re a lawyer you hear all kinds of horrible things,” said Harris, a former member of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “You represent people who said horrible things, who did horrible things,” she said. “You cannot guarantee a world without offensive language.” Adam Scales, a black professor at Rutgers Law who signed the declaration of support for Bergelson, said he even opposed voluntary limits on speech. But he said the number of his colleagues who believe racial epithets should never be used, regardless of the context, is “not insignificant.” Using euphemisms like “N-word” to avoid racial insult, he said, obscures his loathsome story. “There is something extremely antiseptic about the term ‘N-word’,” he said. “There is something that softens the impact.” Faculty discussions, held via videoconference, were tense, he said. “I can’t imagine a less hospitable setting than a Zoom call of 100 people to discuss racism,” he said. “It is a demoralizing time for everyone involved.” Bergelson, who emigrated from Moscow as an adult, said his belief that insults rooted in racism, bigotry or misogyny should be avoided in the classroom stems from his personal history. Her grandmother, she said, was a journalist executed in 1950 by the Stalinist regime for joining the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Another relative was executed in 1952. Bergelson said his mother, who was 16 when her own mother died, never fully recovered from the trauma. “I certainly grew up in the shadow of this tragedy,” she said. “I am very sensitive to how a word can trigger painful episodes. I would never use words in class. Yet, she said, other teachers and students should be free to make their own choices. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company

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