Legal Education

Law student who quoted from opinion, including its racial slur, finds herself at center of controversy

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A first-year law student who used the N-word when quoting a legal opinion that used the racial epithet is said to be distraught over the controversy that followed. She has also hired a lawyer.

The incident happened in October at the Rutgers Law School in Newark, New Jersey, during an after-class videoconference session attended by the 1L, who is white, two other students and a law professor, Vera Bergelson, the New York Times reports.

The 1L used the word during a discussion about conspiracy convictions for crimes committed by co-conspirators, according to a summary of the incident written by professors.

The student quoted from a 1993 New Jersey Supreme Court case, according to the Volokh Conspiracy. The criminal defendant in the case had been charged with a conspiracy involving murder after he argued with a guest at a party and vowed to return with friends.

The 1L quoted from a line in the decision revealing what the defendant said as he left the party, according to the summary.

“He said, um—and I’ll use a racial word, but it’s a quote,” the 1L said. “He says, ‘I’m going to go to Trenton and come back with my [expletive]s.’”

The New York Times described the 1L as “a middle-age woman studying law as a second career.” When one of the students told the 1L that she should not have used the word, the 1L agreed to speak further on the phone. She also arranged to speak with the third student, according to the 1L’s lawyer, Samantha Harris, a former fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The video of the meeting, found online, was shared with others. Since then, faculty meetings “have been marked by heated exchanges,” the New York Times reports. A racial healing session arranged by students “was filled with raw emotion.” Law professors have taken stands on both sides of the issue.

A petition circulated by first-year Black law students condemns use of the N-word “and the acquiescence of its usage.” The petition calls for an apology from Bergelson and the 1L.

Bergelson has said she didn’t hear the student use the N-word and would have corrected the 1L if she had, according to the New York Times. When Bergelson learned of the incident, she discussed it with first-year students and apologized. The 1L also apologized. But they have not issued written apologies, according to the Volokh Conspiracy.

Bergelson told the New York Times that she came to the United States from Moscow, where two relatives were executed, One of them, Bergelson’s grandmother, was a journalist executed in 1950 for associating with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. The other was Yiddish writer David Bergelson, according to the Volokh Conspiracy. He participated in the same committee and was executed in 1952.

Bergelson told the New York Times that her family’s history is why she opposes slurs rooted in racism, bigotry or misogyny in class. In an email to the Volokh Conspiracy, however, she noted “the similarity between this attack on me and the Soviet collective condemnations and public self-accusations.”

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