The use of racial slurs in classrooms has come under discussion at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey after a white student used the N-word while quoting a 1993 legal case.
The incident, which took place during Professor Vera Bergalson’s virtual office hours in October last year, has sparked debate over the constitutional right to free speech on campus and the use of racial slurs in the era of racial reckoning.
The student, who has not been named, is a middle-aged white woman studying law as a second career.
A group of Black first-year students at Rutgers Law responded to the incident by starting a petition to create policy on racial slurs, along with calls for apologies from the student and professor.
“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,” the petition states.
“We vehemently condemn the use of the N-word by the student and the acquiescence of its usage.”
The petition, released in early April, has since been signed by law students and campus organizations nationwide.
Professor Begelson, 59, has said that she hadn’t heard the student use the slur during office hours, and did not discover the outrage over the incident until the petition began circulating.
“I wish I could go back in time to that office hour and confront it directly. I would never use the words in class,” Bergelson told The New York Times.
Black students from the class contacted a dean, David Lopez, to express their outrage over the slur’s use.
While Professor Lopez has apologized for his failure in promptly addressing the students’ concerns, the delay has only fueled more frustration, which the students expressed in their petition.
A faculty meeting on Friday included a discussion as to whether or not the use of racial epithets should be barred from class, even when citing legal documents verbatim, The New York Times reports.
“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,” Lopez said in an email to the school community soon after the petition surfaced.
Other professors, including former New Jersey attorney general John Farmer Jr., signed a statement in support of the student and Professor Bergelson.