Professor at Wake Forest University Apologizes for Reading the N-Word Aloud in Class

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.”

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  1. I am Black pro-Black professor. However, I find this troubling. In the context of reviewing court cases, the students object to hearing the word? Clearly, these are students who are going to school but ignoring their education.

  2. I, too, am a Black, pro-Black college professor, who is an attorney and I teach Constitutional Law to undergraduate students at an HBCU. While I totally understand the necessity to be sensitive to the gratuitous use of potentially offensive language in the classroom, in this situation I must admit I am speechless! Did the professor have absolutely no educational purpose for highlighting and reading that particular footnote? Are we not to teach opinions such as Dred Scott because of the language used that may be offensive?

    I don’t understand the results here. I assume there must be a back story that so far I am missing.

  3. As an African American professor who teaches Public Law and Public Policy Analysis, I truly do not understand the students’ concerns unless, as Professor Bookman suggests, there is a back story to all of this. Actually, I think it is necessary for students to be cognizant of the gravity of such statements and writings in the context from which they emerged thereby enabling them to critically analyze, evaluate, and then further expand the knowledge base.

  4. These students must grow up… They are in a law class, studying cases involving free speech and all that went into it. We must stop complaining about every single thing that hurts our feelings and channel the outrage into efforts that sustain the right to free speech. I do not think for one minute, the students and the school administrator believe the professor was being intentionally insensitive.

  5. As an African American law student, I don’t think I would have been outraged based on what was reported in the story. If a professor is reciting pertinent facts of a case that we are studying, it is what it is. I think I would have been more upset at the actual facts/ events & language of the actual case. Not the reciting of them.

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