Now the Shoe is On the Other Foot

BY HANK REICHMAN

For some time we have been repeatedly assaulted by exaggerated claims from the political Right that student objections to institutional racism and sexism on campuses violate freedom of speech by imposing an orthodoxy of “political correctness.”  Conservative pundits have openly mocked student charges that racist and sexist behavior can be traumatic for them.  The concern is not entirely misplaced, of course, because a few student demands could fuel the troubling efforts of some administrators, well documented in Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning LIberty, to enforce conformist notions of “civility” and “tolerance” that would silence dissenting voices.  Nevertheless, protesting students also have the right to speak, and, as I have argued previously on this blog (here and here) and in a piece on Inside Higher Ed, most of their demands do not seriously threaten the freedom of others but instead represent, in David Cole’s words, “the best traditions of free speech.”

Now, however, it would seem the shoe is on the other foot, as conservative law professors at Georgetown University have charged that an email from one of their colleagues critical of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would stifle free discussion and “traumatize” conservative students.  Here’s how Scott Jaschik describes the controversy in this morning’s Inside Higher Ed:

The controversy started when the law school and the university issued press releases about Scalia, who received his undergraduate degree from Georgetown and who made a number of visits to the law school over the years, meeting with students and faculty members.

The law school’s news release had the headline “Georgetown Law Mourns the Loss of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.” The release quoted the law dean, William M. Treanor, as saying, “Scalia was a giant in the history of the law, a brilliant jurist whose opinions and scholarship profoundly transformed the law.”

That prompted Gary Peller, a law professor, to share his concerns about the press release.

“I was put off by the invocation of the ‘Georgetown community’ in the press release that Dean Treanor issued Saturday. I imagine many other faculty, students and staff, particularly people of color, women and sexual minorities, cringed at the headline and at the unmitigated praise with which the press release described a jurist that many of us believe was a defender of privilege, oppression and bigotry, one whose intellectual positions were not brilliant but simplistic and formalistic,” wrote Peller. . . .

He added that he objected to the use of “Georgetown community” in the press release. He wrote that he feels part of “a lived community of tolerance, affection and care that so many have built for so long here. That ‘community’ would never have claimed that our entire community mourns the loss of J. Scalia, nor contributed to his mystification without regard for the harm and hurt he inflicted. That community teaches critique, not deference, and empowerment, not obsequiousness.”

That prompted two other Georgetown professors, Randy Barnett and Nick Rosenkranz, to send out their own mass email.

They argued that the Peller email had a damaging impact on free exchange at the law school. They said that Peller’s email insulted and scared students who are fans of Scalia by saying “in effect, your hero was a stupid bigot and we are not sad that he is dead.”

Barnett and Rosenkranz continued, “Although this email was upsetting to us, we could only imagine what it was like for these students. Some of them are twenty-two-year-old 1Ls, less than six months into their legal education. But we did not have to wait long to find out. Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken and angry were their fellow students. Of particular concern to them were the students who are in Professor Peller’s class who must now attend class knowing of his contempt for Justice Scalia and his admirers, including them. How are they now to participate freely in class? What reasoning would be deemed acceptable on their exams?”

The professors then conclude: “All we can do, really, is convey our solidarity with our wonderful students. We share your pain. We share your anger. We stand with you. You are not alone. Be strong as Justice Scalia was strong. Remember, he heard far worse about himself than we have, and yet never wavered in both his convictions and his joy for life. But make no mistake: civil discourse at Georgetown has suffered a grievous blow. It is a time for mourning indeed.”

This is really rich!  So I guess it’s now “politically incorrect” to criticize Antonin Scalia?  (Tell that to Linda Greenhouse, whose op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times brilliantly cut through the avalanche of sanctimony that has followed his passing.)  But, let’s see: When the administration at Yale distributed a message advising students to be considerate of others in choosing Halloween costumes, it was fine for a conservative faculty member to email students a critical response that scoffed at the original message.  And when minority students found that response objectionable, they were accused of stifling free speech.  But when the Georgetown administration sends out an email praising a conservative icon, and a liberal faculty member emails a critical response, it’s the liberal who’s stifling free speech and the conservative students who are the helpless victims!  And what, one might ask, about the liberal students in Barnett’s and Rosenkranz’s classes who now “attend class knowing of” their professors’ disdain for critics of Justice Scalia?

The simple truth is that both Peller and his critics have every right to voice their views about Justice Scalia to whomever they so wish, regardless of the university’s “official” position.  And surely Georgetown law students should be mature enough to handle being instructed by faculty members with strong views — leftist or rightist — about the law!

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