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.
Bergelson, 59, has said that she did not hear the word spoken during the videoconference session, which three students attended after a criminal law class, and would have corrected the student if she had.
Soon after the professor’s office hours in late October, a white classmate contacted the student who quoted the epithet to say that she should have avoided using it.
The student, a middle-aged woman studying law as a second career, offered her phone number to continue the discussion and also arranged for a lengthy conversation with the third student, her lawyer said.
One of the students later told a Black classmate; a recording of the meeting, which is no longer accessible, was discovered online and shared.
Black students from the class who were offended by the slur expressed their concerns to another professor, who alerted a dean, David Lopez, soon after the incident, several officials said.
Bergelson said she was never told about her students’ objections, learning of them only after the petition surfaced April 6, five months later. Within days, she said, she convened a meeting with the criminal law class and other first-year students to discuss the incident and to offer 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 confront it directly,” Bergelson said in an interview.
Lopez has apologized for failing to address the students’ concerns promptly, a delay that contributed to their frustration and was cited in the petition. But that has done little to quell the tension.
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 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 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.”
The petition organizers said they were busy with final exams and would have no immediate comment beyond the petition.
Any public use of a racial epithet can carry a risk of steep professional consequences.
The head of the journalism department at Central Michigan University was fired last year after using the same slur when quoting from a lawsuit. An Emory University law school professor was placed on administrative leave for more than a year after using the word in discussions with students about race.
Rutgers officials willing to talk openly about their opposition to the students’ demands have said that the school, as a public institution, has a greater obligation to safeguard students’ and teachers’ First Amendment right to 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.
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.”
Samantha Harris, the lawyer representing the woman, said the school would be abdicating its responsibility to train lawyers if it encouraged professors to avoid epithets in all contexts.
“When you’re an attorney, you hear all kinds of horrible things,” said Harris, a former fellow at FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
“You represent people who have said horrible things, who have done horrible things,” she said. “You can’t guarantee a world free of offensive language.”
Adam Scales, a Black professor at Rutgers Law who has signed the statement of support for Bergelson, said he opposed even voluntary limits on speech. But he said the number of his colleagues who believe racial epithets should never be spoken, regardless of the context, is “not insignificant.”
Using euphemisms like “N-word” to avoid the racial slur, he said, obfuscates its repugnant history.
“There is something extremely antiseptic about the term ‘N-word,’” he said. “There is something that softens the impact.”
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.”
Bergelson, who emigrated from Moscow as an adult, said her belief that slurs rooted in racism, bigotry or misogyny should be avoided in class stems from her personal history. Her grandmother, she said, was a journalist who was executed in 1950 by the Stalin regime for associating with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Another relative was executed in 1952.
Bergelson said her 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 the words in class.”
Still, she said, other professors and students should be free to make their own choices.