DePaul law professor subject of complaints over use of ‘N-word’ in class lecture

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Several DePaul University law students have complained to the school’s dean about a professor’s use of the N-word in class last week.

Professor Donald Hermann said he used the word in class last Thursday while discussing this hypothetical situation: a white supremacist attends the funeral of a civil rights leader and hurls the word at funeral attendees. The crowd comes after him. Can he shoot them and claim self defense?

“In this case he can’t, he’d be guilty of murder, he’s the aggressor,” Herman told the Sun-Times during a phone conversation Wednesday afternoon.

“My argument was that almost every other slur would not be enough in a similar context to make the harasser an aggressor,” Hermann said.

Hermann said he used the word with full knowledge of its weight.

“The alternative (to using the word) is there, of course, but it waters down the discussion and the significance of the word. I think their reaction to it is the very justification for the use of it in this context,” he said, adding that he didn’t shout the word or point it at anyone, but said it in a plain voice.

“Some of these students will be public defenders, prosecutors, defense attorneys. Words like this will be a common part of their practice. I can understand their sensitivity about it. But in preparing people to go out into the real world, if during their education we have to be so sensitive to provide a safe space to harbor them from words that could be emotionally upsetting, I don’t think we’re doing our job of educating these students to be lawyers.”

DePaul spokeswoman Carol Hughes said university’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, which oversees discrimination and harassment complaints, was notified and meetings had been arranged to interview Hermann and his students.

“The OIDE staff will complete their inquiries in accordance with established university procedures,” she Hughes said in an emailed statement.

Terry Smith, who is African-American and a law professor at DePaul, said that he supports his colleague’s use of the word in the context in which he used it.

“Increasingly, we are dumbing down legal education for students. And increasingly they are ill-prepared to go out and represent clients. They will encounter this terminology and worse in practice. What will they do then?” Smith said.

Smith said he received an email from a female African-American student who was in Hermann’s class.

“She was upset that Professor Hermann had previously used the euphemism ‘N-word’ but on that day he did not and she said no white person should be permitted to use that term,” Smith said.

Smith spoke bluntly when asked to comment further about the student complaints.

“I think that their reaction is prompted by: A) A sense of entitlement that they should not be offended or provoked in the classroom. And, B) [it] represents something of a double standard in which many of the students who are complaining regularly go to movies where the N-word is regularly used where there’s no teaching context for it. … Now in the classroom where there’s a teaching justification, suddenly they’re upset by it. I find that to be hypocritical.”

“His use of the word was not gratuitous,” Smith said. “(Hermann) and I pulled up more than 5,500 federal cases that use the word n—– and did not substitute the word with the ‘N-word,'” Smith said. “If these students are preparing to become lawyers, how can it be objectionable for a professor, in the proper teaching context, to use the word?”

Smith said he’s never had any experiences that would cause him to believe Hermann is at all racist.

“Frankly, relative to my other white colleagues, he would rank as perhaps the most progressive white colleague I have,” he said.

Hermann said other professors have found themselves similarly critiqued for using graphic language while discussing case law related to sexual assault.

Hermann, who’s been teaching since 1972, said he was sorry that the students had been offended or hurt and said he planned to skip the “fighting words” discussion in future classes.

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