Michael Curtis was the valedictorian of his class at University of the South in 1964. He received his J.D. with honors from the University of North Carolina in 1969. He spent the last 30 teaching constitutional law at Wake Forest Law School, spending some of his off-hours doing pro bono representation for the North Caroline Civil Liberties Union. The Judge Donald Smith Professor of Constitutional and Public Law has been around a while.
Wake Forest University Law School no longer deserves him.
Adjusting to the moment, he was teaching the First Amendment, which of necessity required the teaching of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the “fighting words” case. While it can’t be said with certainty, one would expect that he taught this case many times, every time he taught Con Law. The case is a big deal, and it would be shocking if he didn’t. In the decision, both in the body of the opinion and in footnote 1, is a word, a word that most of us find totally reprehensible, but a word that’s there on the page, that’s critical to the decision, that doesn’t disappear because we wish it would. But it’s just a word.
Prof. Curtis read the footnote to his students. Maybe he did this every time he taught Brandenburg, or maybe this was an adjustment to his methods under the online teaching circumstances. But this time, reading a footnote from a Supreme Court opinion in a foundational First Amendment decision gave rise to an ironic reaction of outrage.
Wake Forest University Law School Dean Jane Aiken sent an email to the entire law school “community”:
Dear Wake Forest Law Community,
As some of you know, a number of students reached out yesterday to the Dean’s Office about Professor Michael Curtis’ use of the “n-word” when teaching Brandenburg v. Ohio in Constitutional Law I.
First, for the students attending that class, please know you have my most sincere, heart-felt apology for the pain Professor Curtis caused many of you when he read aloud the footnote in Brandenburg detailing racist statements made at a Ku Klux Klan rally, which included the most offensive word in the American language — the n-word. 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. Words matter and the consequences of words (not just the intentions behind words) matter. On behalf of Wake Forest Law, I am sorry.
Second, please also know I spoke with Professor Curtis last night, and on reflection, he realized that it was sufficient to have students read the footnote with care and that the n-word need not be said out loud. He sent his students an email last night. As he noted, “I was saddened to learn of and I regret the deep pain that hearing the words read aloud caused some of our students.”
Third, I want to reaffirm my commitment to your learning in a diverse, inclusive, and equitable learning environment. At Wake Forest Law, diversity — the mix of different perspectives and experiences that make up a healthy, stimulating classroom — is of paramount importance. Our community shares a tradition that embraces freedom and integrity, acknowledges the worth of the individual, and promotes a democratic spirit arising from open-mindedness and discourse. Yesterday, we failed to carry out that tradition. Together going forward, I want to minimize our failures.
The email continues with the usual generic drivel about workshops for implicit bias and student proposals to improve diversity and inclusion.
Lastly, I am asking Alison Ashe-Card, who chairs our faculty Diversity & Inclusion Committee, and Wendy Parker, Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, to work with students and faculty to submit proposals to me about next steps by April 24, 2020.
I am committed to marshaling all of our resources to ensure a diverse, inclusive, and equitable legal education experience. Only then will our students be prepared for the challenges our world faces.
It’s unclear whether there was one complaint to the dean or a law school in turmoil because Prof. Curtis uttered the “n-word” while teaching a class in First Amendment law. Either way, it was sufficient to marshal substantial resources of the school to react, with a “heartfelt” apology for the “hurt” it caused, all in the name of “a tradition that embraces freedom and integrity.”
The dean’s email asserts that it would have been different had Prof. Curtis merely had “students read the footnote with care and that the n-word need not be said out loud.” Was it the trauma of hearing rather than seeing the word? Was it the “deep pain” of the word emitting from Prof. Curtis’ lips? It couldn’t have been the context, as the point of the footnote is to document how offensive the word is, so was it just the sound that reached their tender ears?
Perhaps the time has passed that students can be taught the law at its high and low. There may well come a time when, as lawyers, these students will confront words that cause them “deep pain,” and they’re going to be expected to deal with it and persist in their duty to their client. But if they can’t learn the law without crying, and if their law school can’t teach the law without following up with puppy rooms and Play-Doh, then there is little chance they will have the fortitude to be lawyers who will suffer far worse trauma than the utterance of a word.
Dean Aiken caved in to the weakest impulse of her law school. Wake Forest University Law School doesn’t deserve Prof. Curtis, and he’s done his time teaching law students who wanted to learn the law. If teaching Brandenburg, including his utterance of the content of a footnote in a Supreme Court opinion, makes law students cry, then it’s time to walk away. The students aren’t worthy of Prof. Curtis, and they aren’t worthy of becoming lawyers.