Following up on my previous posts (links below) on the controversy at American Law School over posting 'All Lives Matter' on a law prof's office door: U.S. Uncut, Students Complain About Professor’s Black Lives Matter Shirt. The Professor’s Response Is Priceless:
A law professor received a written complaint from “Concerned Students” about his Black Lives Matter shirt, and he responded by brilliantly turning the letter into a teachable moment, taking apart their arguments and the assumptions behind them, literally and figuratively schooling the authors of the complaint with wit, clarity, and moral authority.
The full text of both the student’s complaint and the law professor’s response can be found here.
The students wrote, “The ‘Black Lives Matter’ statement is racist and anti-law enforcement and has been known to incite violence in this country. As someone who is paid to teach the law, you should be ashamed of yourself,” among other arguments against the professor’s choice of wardrobe.
[Y]ou have presented yourself on campus, on at least one occasion, wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt. We believe this is an inappropriate and unnecessary statement that has no legitimate place within our institution of higher learning. The statement you represented and endorsed is also highly offensive and extremely inflammatory. We are here to learn the law. We do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors.
REDACTED Law School has prided itself on the diverse demographics represented within the student body. Your actions however, clearly represent your View that some of those demographics matter more than others. That alienates and isolates all non-black groups.
As someone who is charged to teach criminal law, it should be abundantly clear to you and beyond any question that ALL lives matter, as it is expressed unequivocally in the law. Furthermore, the “Black Lives Matter” statement is racist and anti-law enforcement and has been known to incite violence in this country. As someone who is paid to teach the law, you should be ashamed of yourself. ...
Just as our personal beliefs have no place in law exams, your personal beliefs have no place in the classroom.
REDACTED Law School is experiencing an unprecedented decline in bar passage rate. It is imperative that you utilize energy to actually teach law instead of continue to express hateful messages.
Unfortunately, we feel that we must deliver this message to you anonymously. It is clear that the opinions expressed within this letter are not welcome. If student body opinions go against the school or faculty we fear there will be retaliation. In fact, REDACTED Law School administration and faculty, including you, have shown no shame in displaying appalling levels of discrimination.
The professor responded with “Here is a short list of some of the premises in your memo, and my critique of them.”
I am accepting the invitation in your memo, and the opportunity created by its content, to teach you. I would prefer to do it through a conversation, or especially through a series of conversations. Because I don’t know who you are. This isn’t possible. And there is an even more important reason for putting this in writing for the entire law school community. The larger issues that underlie your anger are timely, and they touch the entire law school community and transcend it.
This response to your memo is in two parts. Part I addresses the substantive and analytical lessons that can be learned from the memo. Part II addresses the lessons about writing that can be learned from the memo.
When your argument is based on a series of premises, you should be aware of them. You should also be aware that if any of these premises are factually flawed or illogical, or if the reader simply doesn’t accept them, your message will collapse from lack of support. Here is a short list of some of the premises in your memo, and my critique of them.
Premise: You have purchased, with your tuition dollars, the right to make demands upon the institution and the people in it and to dictate the content of your legal education.
Critique: I do not subscribe to the “consumer model” of legal education. As a consequence, I believe in your entitlement to assert your needs and desires even more strongly than you do. You would be just as entitled to express yourself to us if the law school were entirely tuition free This is because you are a student, not because you are a consumer. Besides, the natural and logical extension of your premise IS that students on a full scholarship are not entitled to assert their needs and desires to the same extent as other students (or maybe even at all). So, as you can see, arguments premised on consumerism are not likely to influence me. On the contrary, such a premise causes me to believe that you have a diminished view of legal education and the source of our responsibility as legal educators. This allows me to take any criticism from such a perspective less seriously than I otherwise would. ...
Premise: There is something called “Law” that is objective, fixed, and detached from and unaffected by the society in which it functions.
Critique: Law has no meaning or relevance outside of society. It both shapes and is shaped by the society in which it functions. Law is made by humans. It protects, controls, burdens, and liberates humans, non-human animals, nature, and inanimate physical objects. Like the humans who make it, Law is biased, noble, aspirational, short-sighted, flawed, messy, unclear, brilliant, and constantly changing. If you think that Law is merely a set of rules to be taught and learned, you are missing the beauty of Law and the point of law school.
Premise: You know more about legal education than I do.
Critique: You don't.
Premise: There is an invisible “only” in front of the words “Black Lives Matter.”
Critique: There is a difference between focus and exclusion. If something matters, this does not imply that nothing else does. If l say “Law Students Matter” it does not imply that my colleagues, friends, and family do not. Here is something else that matters: context. The Black Lives Matter movement arose in a context of evidence that they don’t. When people are receiving messages from the culture in which they live that their lives are less important than other lives, it is a cruel distortion of reality to scold them for not being inclusive enough.
As applied specifically to the context in which I wore my Black Lives Matter shirt, I did this on a day in Criminal Procedure when we were explicitly discussing violence against the black community by police.
There are some implicit words that precede “Black Lives Matter,” and they go something like this:
Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular. It is important that we say that…
This is, of course, far too long to fit on a shirt.
Black Lives Matter is about focus, not exclusion. As a general matter, seeing the world and the people in it in mutually exclusive, either/or terms impedes your own thought processes. If you wish to bear that intellectual consequence of a constricting ideology, that’s your decision. But this does not entitle you to project your either/or ideology onto people who do not share it. ...
Because a long time ago (in a law school far, faraway) I was a teacher of legal writing, and because I still care about it very much, I will make some points relevant to formal and persuasive writing.
When you are writing to someone who has a formal title (e.g., Doctor, Professor, Dean, Judge, Senator) you should address him or her using that title. To do otherwise appears either ignorant or disrespectful. Whether or not you actually have any respect for the person is completely irrelevant. I take that back. It might be more important to follow the formal writing conventions when you don't respect the individual person. Otherwise, you are risking trading the credibility of your entire message for the momentary satisfaction derived from communicating your disdain. ...
In conclusion, I believe that every moment in life (and certainly in the life of law school) can be an occasion for teaching and learning. Thank you for creating an opportunity for me to put this deeply held belief into practice.
Prior TaxProf Blog posts:
Update: Teaching Law In An Age Of Violence