Zooming into controversy
Racial slurs online prompt free speech discussion
Law students often cite legal opinions, but one Rutgers University student’s quoting of one during a professor’s virtual office hours over Zoom sparked debate. The reason: The white student quoted from a 1993 opinion that included a racial slur, The New York Times reported. A video of the incident popped up on social media, spawning a petition and calls for the school to ban the word.
Recordings of racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive outbursts have gotten teachers fired and students ostracized, and online meetings during the pandemic have made it easier than ever to record meetings and classes. But recordings have also sparked discussion over free speech and what words are appropriate for classroom discussion.
The past year has seen a string of viral videos recording offensive comments in classrooms and school meetings. In February, an entire California school board resigned after accidentally livestreaming themselves insulting parents. In late March, a black mother in California filed a legal complaint that said her son’s teacher gave a 30-minute racist rant to her husband, not realizing a Zoom session with the mother was still running. The video documented the teacher complaining that black people habitually make excuses. The teacher quickly resigned. Also in March, Georgetown Law School fired an adjunct professor who made disparaging comments about black students to another professor, unaware Zoom was still recording.
But unlike in those incidents, the Rutgers student was quoting a case. This isn’t the first dustup after direct quotations in law classes. Last August, Central Michigan University fired a journalism professor after a video from a 2017 class showed him repeating quotes from a lawsuit that included racial epithets. Emory University banned a law professor from campus over two 2018 incidents when he used a racial slur while teaching about a Jim Crow–era case. The American Association of University Professors wrote to the school supporting the professor’s academic freedom, and he was reinstated in March 2020 after an investigation confirmed he used the word to teach, not harass.
Meanwhile at Rutgers, The New York Times reported that while faculty have met to discuss whether to ban racial slurs in class, the student has apologized and hired a free speech lawyer.
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