Michael Kent Curtis, the Judge Donald L. Smith Professor in Constitutional and Public Law, at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, is a leading expert on free speech. He is the author of the award-winning book Free Speech: The People’s Darling Privilege: Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History (Duke University Press, 2000).
In teaching a class on constitutional law, Professor Curtis read portions of the decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio, an important First Amendment case that involved the rights of a Ku Klux Klan member. Footnotes contained in the ruling of the case included the N-word, which was read aloud in class by Professor Curtis. Several students complained to Jane Aiken, the dean of the law school.
In response, the dean wrote, in part: “Please know you have my most sincere, heartfelt apology for the pain Professor Curtis caused many of you. Confronting America’s discriminatory past through case law can be challenging enough without hearing your professor read that word aloud in a class. Wondering how the word will be treated in the class where your attendance is required can be a painful experience as well. I also want to offer that same apology for students who learned about the incident and were also hurt.”
It was suggested that the students could have read the footnote in question and not be subjected to hearing the word read aloud in class.
Professor Curtsi later issued an apology to his students. In an email, he wrote: “I was saddened to learn of and I regret the deep pain that hearing the words read aloud caused some of our students.”