Monday, August 21, 2017
Law schools are reporting increased incidents of angry students making comments that parallel some of the current, public hate speech. Schools report race based incidents, a few reporting physical, or near physical, encounters.
Some professors believe they are dis-empowered to address classroom "discussions" where students not only express biased views, but do so in angry and disrespectful ways. Professors who view their dilemma solely from a "free speech" perspective limit themselves. The recent tour of "conservative" speakers claiming their voices are silenced on "liberal" campuses may have contributed to this faculty sense of dis-empowerment.
But there are other pedagogical considerations. Law schools train professionals. Reasoned civil debate is one goal of law school pedagogy. We teach students to view legal claims and facts from a variety of perspectives. We encourage them to recognize when to separate out the personal from the professional and likewise, when to consider the personal as inevitably intertwining with the legal. Underpinning our training is not just the ability for lawyers to objectively assess other perspectives, but the necessity of doing so. The practical consequences of failure to do so will result in our students being out-strategized by opposing counsel. More immediately, their inability to consider any merit of opposing arguments will have a negative impact on grading. In practice, inappropriate tone will cost lawyers business from clients who recognize the connection between professionalism and success. In law school, voicing opinions unsupported by reliable data or law impacts the professor's assessment of student performance.
So administrators and faculty need to broaden their own perspectives on the deterioration of professionalism within the law school community. A student's unwillingness to engage in civil debate is a choice. Disrespectful speech is unprofessional and when done within the context of classes is a grading consideration.
Freedom of speech is honored. But freedom of speech does not support disrespectful speech. Not in the professional school context.
Part of the reason administrators and professors focus only on freedom of speech is fear of lawsuits by those claiming their speech is unlawfully suppressed. This is not the time for fear based decision-making. This is the time to focus on our obligations as teachers to train our students in professionalism and the art of debate. Legal ethics demand professionalism.
Prof. Ho has written thoughtfully about pushback on "political correctness" as deflecting from underlying incivility. Incivility certainly has evidenced itself within and without the academy. This pushback is often an excuse for avoiding civil debate. I view current dialogue from an additional dimension. Pushback on "political correctness" often veils bias whether delivered in a civil or incivil manner. So before my students engage in disrespectful speech they will know two things. To the extent possible, political labels are eliminated from our discussion. We will focus on ideas and empirical evidence without regard to whether the speaker is Republican or Democratic. We leave the words liberal and conservative unspoken. Doing so forces attention on ideas and not on the speakers.
Secondly, students are aware that how they present their ideas is a professionalism issue that will be reflected in grading. I am confident that I and other professors are capable of distinguishing between passion for a topic and resistance to self-reflection.
Effective leaders do not throw up their hands and relinquish responsibility under the guise that free speech bars any proactive and protective action. Leadership finds ways to protect the dignity of all members of the community. Where are Human Rights? Eleanor Roosevelt asked. They are local, she instructed. They are in places that are not on any map. They are found in law schools, too.