Professor Michael Curtis’ Fighting Words

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.

35 thoughts on “Professor Michael Curtis’ Fighting Words

  1. Guitardave

    Over and over again, it amazes me that they cannot see how emotionally immature, and intellectually stunted they appear to the adults in the trenches.
    I suggest they rename the school, Woke Forrest University.
    Run Forrest, RUN!
    PS: Tell PK to listen to this before he buys an axe that needs a dirty ole’ power plant to make sound. 🙂

    Reply
  2. F. Lee Billy

    Kneegrow, kneegrow, kneegrow!?! Get over it Dean Aiken. The mere sound of your name causes us pain, as in head-aike.

    We’re experiencing the worst pandemic in decades, and you’re obsessing over the sound of the “worst word” n the English language. Where are your priorities? A single word in a footnote to a Supreme Court decision! It’s bizarre; it’s strange. These are weird times. Just ask our President?

    Reply
  3. Chris Van Wagner

    Have they banned the book, 1L, and the Socratic Method too, at Deacon Law? How would professor Perini fare? Turow continues to collect royalties, I hear, so in theory these law students come in with some sense of how hard the law can be on polite sensibilities…. Wait. No they do not. Sorry. Lost my head.

    Reply
      1. PseudonymousKid

        Dear Papa,

        Degenrate undeserving clients with great legal claims exist. They can pay well and are usually more appreciative than the downtrodden. If the law doesn’t give a fuck, then I don’t either. Were hired guns. That’s all.

        The trenches require a hard constitution. We can be more high-minded sometimes but only if it serves a purpose. Otherwise it’s brute force.

        I guess it’s just a verbose way of agreeing with you. Sorry for the tummy rubs. You don’t need them.

        Love,
        PK

        Reply
  4. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    With one deeply silly email prompted by several children who give diapers a bad name, Wake Forest University Law School became joke.

    All the best.

    RGK

    Reply
      1. Rxc

        I think that it is part of the progressive plan, but they have not quite completed preparing the ground for it, yet. Standby.

        Reply
  5. Lawrence Kaplan

    What I feel bad about is that Professor Curtis apologized. Don’t feed the trolls! By doing so, he is only asking for more piling-on. He should have told the students and the Dean to grow up

    Reply
  6. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    Through the magic of stupidity, Dean Aiken transfigures Professor Curtis’ mention of SCOTUS’ mention of the n-word into his “use of the ‘n-word.'” Awesome. How gratuitous and awful of the professor. If Wake Forest Law is going to mau-mau its own people, shouldn’t they at least do so in a way that won’t make freshman philosophy students laugh at them?

    Reply
  7. orthodoc

    these schools are very competitive with each other, so if Emory (US news #19) can suspend professor Paul Zwier for a single use of the word (SJ 9/2/19), Wake (#31) has no choice but to react to this footnote, with 5 mentions. (ps at least be glad the dean implicitly endorsed free speech for the phrase ‘Send the Jews back to Israel’)

    Reply
  8. Ross

    I really want to see these snowflakes collapse in court when a witness uses one of the horrific trigger words. The image of them mewling pitifully on the floor brings me great joy.

    Reply
  9. Buncy

    We must remember never to use words like “chigger” or “niggardly” because these are pain-triggers which elicit similar agonizing responses in sensitive new-age persons.

    Reply
  10. John Burger

    We can whine about the immaturity and weakness of future lawyers, which is important – who wants a sensitive giver gid/goddess representing their interests? We can mock these tender souls until the cows come home. It’s clear that irony is all But lost on the Wake Forest administration. But, that isn’t all this story shows.

    This story really isn’t about the Word that Can’t be Said. It is about capitulating before The Mob. The most depressing part of your post is this: Prof. Curtis caved in and issued an apology. He probably thought, “ah, hell. I’m done with this rot so who cares?” The little monsters got their way – a once distinguished legal scholar bowed down before the First Church of Holy Diversity, repented of his transgressions and promised to sin no more.

    I wonder what absolution he received from
    jvbAlison Ashe-Card, the Wake Forest faculty Diversity & Inclusion Committee (which is neither diverse or inclysive) chair, and Wendy Parker, Wake Forest’s Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs? Did he gave to write, “I won’t say the N-word in class ever again” one hundred times in cursive?

    Reply
      1. John V. Burger

        Why, yes, I do. I don’t like whiners – I consider the complainants whiners. I like wine just fine. But, whinging about how The Word that Can’t be Said makes future lawyers feel seems like a lesson in futility. These are people being taught to be lawyers, not cowards. Sometimes, lawyers need to represent some pretty people (Jeffrey Epstein, Dahmer, Michael Milken come to mind). What we lawyers do can get very nasty because life can be very nasty. I suspect that looking at crime scene photos of a particularly vicious crime would be unsettling and disturbing – a whole hell of a lot more disturbing than reading the Word that Can’t be Said in a Supreme Court footnote.

        jvb

        Reply
        1. SHG Post author

          We can whine about the immaturity and weakness of future lawyers…

          You might rethink what you wrote, what I wrote and what you wrote.

          Reply
  11. Mark Creatura

    Mister Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.

    Reply
  12. delurking

    Oh, come now. It isn’t all that bad. It comes straight from the Dean’s keyboard: It is OK to make students “read the footnote with care”. This is a reasonable accomodation for those who want to teach. Be lecturing along, and when the sentence with the word comes up, simply pause, point to the powerpoint slide, and say “read that sentence”, and then continue lecturing along. There is negligible pedagogic difference between that and what happened in Prof. Curtis’s classroom.

    This is no sillier than a lot of stuff that happens on campuses.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      “No sillier (as in utterly fucking idiotic) than a lot of stuff that happens on campus” may not be the appropriate bar for a lawyer.

      Reply
      1. Skink

        “may not be the appropriate bar for a lawyer.”

        In The City, I vote Glacken’s in the Bronx. They’ll learn.

        Reply
      2. delurking

        Perhaps my satire was a little too subtle. Unfortunately, we all know that when a prof goes ahead and puts it up on a powerpoint slide, the Dean will beat a hasty retreat from her own words and repeat this ritual.

        Reply
  13. Steve White

    What about an even more dystopian future, where all the lawyers are woke, judges too, and despite Brandenburg, anyone who violates the woke principles – the defendant who used the unthinkable word- simply has all his due process rights ignored from that point onward? It would be more or less analogous to what already exists in California in the restraining order courts – a man is accused of domestic violence or sexual abuse as a ploy in a divorce/child custody/community property dispute, and is forced into a court where his normal due process rights are ignored. That is done because judges allow it, why can’t it happen with other things the woke feel are so abhorrent no defense should be allowed? The snowflakes melting in the real world might look very good by comparison.

    Reply
  14. Louis Renault

    I just watched the last part of the ESPN documentary “OJ made in America.” I had forgotten to what degree the trial revolved around Detective Mark Fuhrman’s past use of the “N Word” and how defense attorney Johnnie Cochran and other Simpson defense attorneys exploited that fact in the cross examination and final argument phases of the trial. Fuhrman’s language was probably the main reason the jury found Simpson not guilty.

    The “N word” was spoken out loud a number of times during the trial and in the documentary. I wonder whether any of the Wake Law students that denounced Prof. Curtis were also watching the OJ documentary. What did they do when they heard the “N Word?” Call ESPN to protest? Call the cable company? Call 911? Call Dean Aiken?

    Reply

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