It’s been a difficult week for the students of Georgetown Law.
First, there was the loss of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. Depending on your view, he was a legal mind without parallel or a boil on the face of everything that is decent about America. Anyway, he’s gone now.
Then, there were the official emails about Scalia sent to students by the administration of the law school and the university at large, both of which took some version of the former view. “Scalia was a giant in the history of the law, a brilliant jurist whose opinions and scholarship profoundly transformed the law,” the law school dean was quoted as saying in one of them. Strictly speaking, all of that is probably true. The dean might be found guilty of misleading by omission—did Scalia transform the law in good ways or bad, would you say?—but he’s the head of a prestigious institution, you can’t exactly expect him to piss on the dead justice’s grave.
Finally, there were the responses to the official emails, which spiraled out and downward into the seventh ring of listserv hell. The first came from Gary Peller, a law professor who objected to the laudation of a man who once argued that states should be free to outlaw sodomy. Peller wrote in part:
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 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.
At this point, the matter could have been settled. The cautious institution issues its expectedly mealy-mouthed statement; the idealistic professor voices his objection. Georgetown Law students have only three items to contend with in the inboxes.
But then, two conservative professors weighed in, sending their own email blast alleging that the previous email blast had violated campus rules about email blasts. Most notable, as Jesse Singal notes at Daily Intel, is their appropriation of the campus left’s rhetoric about rape culture. Freshman sociology students with Tumblr accounts do not have a monopoly on chilling academic discussion, it turns out. From professors Nick Rosenkranz and Randy Barnett’s very long email:
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?
Tensions had apparently risen so high at this point that Peller’s classroom had a security guard posted outside the door, according to Above the Law. He sent a response to Rosenkranz and Barnett’s response, which frankly isn’t interesting enough to copy and paste here. (You’re not a Georgetown student—why should you have to read through all of this?)
Finally, a heroic faculty member put the matter to bed. According to ATL’s source, “a professor who is not Barnett or Rosenkranz, but who is respected among all the faculty and staff and definitely says what we’re all thinking” contributed the following to the email chain.
Sent: Thursday, February 18, 2016 4:38 PM
To: Gary Peller; All Faculty and Staff Subject:
Re: Mitigating Defamatory Assertions
Please, please, PLEASE stop. At the very least, please omit me from further communications.
If nothing else, the professors put on a great display of how not to act if you’d like to avoid looking like a pompous ass in a workplace dispute. The students will be entering the professional world themselves soon enough. I hope they learned something.