Collegia Apologia: Academic Apologies Abound In The Aftermath Of Ferguson

Ferguson_Day_6,_Picture_44Below is my column that ran today in the USA Today. It ran earlier on the web and this is a slightly expanded version of the piece on the spat of apologies around the country.

College campuses this week seem more like centers of reeducation than education as various academics have been forced into public apologies over references to the recent controversial decisions of grand juries in Missouri and New York.

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 9.13.31 AMConsider the bizarre case of UCLA law professor Robert Goldstein who based an essay question on his final on Michael Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, chanting, “Burn this bitch down!” after the grand jury decision. The angry mob proceeded to loot and burn various businesses in the town. With some calling for Head to be prosecuted, this was a ready-made question for exploring the limits of the first amendment in a real-life situation. However, Goldstein was immediately attacked by commentators like Elie Mystal of the blog Above the Law for being “racially insensitive and divisive.” Mystal falsely stated that Goldstein’s question asked students to “advocate in favor of extremist racists in Ferguson.”

Surprisingly Goldstein actually apologized and told his students that he “clearly underestimated and misjudged the impact of this question.” He proceeded to throw out the question in what seemed a cringing compliance with a new taboo subject.

The apologies continued this week at Smith College after President Kathleen McCartney publicly joined protesters in what she called “a shared fury . . . . [as] we raise our voices in protest.” McCartney declared “all lives matter,” but was immediately denounced for being too inclusive by not saying “Black lives matter.” Smith sophomore, Cecelia Lim, complained that McCartney was “invalidating the experience of black lives.” McCartney asked forgiveness and promised not to stray from the expected language. (Ironically, the next weekend, a civil rights leader led the crowd with the theme that “all lives matter.”).

At the University of Iowa, visiting professor Serhat Tanyolacar also protested wrongly with a striking statue of a Klu Klux Klan member composed of newspaper clippings on racial tension and violence. It was a striking piece of artistic and political speech designed to “facilitate a dialogue.” Within hours, university officials declared the art to be “deeply offensive” and ordered its removal. It effectively declared the art, which is protesting intolerance, to be itself a form of hate speech. Tanyolacar issued a formal apology and a university official who had defended the art also apologized for his “own privilege and culture bias” that blinded him to the feelings of African Americans.

In the meantime, Columbia Law School postponed exams after minority students insisted that it was difficult to sit for exams and apply legal principles that are used to “deny justice to so many black and brown bodies.” The law school agreed and Robert E. Scott, Columbia’s interim dean, postponed the exams due to the “trauma” of the decisions which “threatens to undermine a sense that the law is a fundamental pillar of society to protect fairness, due process and equality.” Students at other law schools are demanding similar delays in their exams.

I sympathize with students who feel deeply injured by what they view as injustice and Columbia was right to reach out to students. However, as lawyers, we work in a trauma-filled environment where not just the rights but the very lives of our clients are sometimes in the balance.

In the cacophony of apologies, what is being lost is the sense academic freedom and free speech on college campuses. Ironically, Tanyolacar did “facilitate a dialogue” but it is whether an open dialogue is still possible on our over-charged campuses.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

50 thoughts on “Collegia Apologia: Academic Apologies Abound In The Aftermath Of Ferguson”

  1. @Nick Spinelli ~ Here’s another academic liberal who hates Republicans. This hypocrisy will change, just like the senate and the states governorship’s. Mark her down, there’s going to be a backlash. I get tired of liberal hacks like the ones in this blog who insult and attack or pick a fight with those who disagree with them. Or they try to make you feel like you are a freak of nature if you don’t see their views. Liberalism is a disease to the very fabric of this country. If they keep up their rhetoric, we won’t have a country anymore. I’m going to fight it all the way and Nov. 4 was just the start. I have plenty of money to put on political candidates too.

    U-M prof: ‘I hate Republicans’ was rhetorical flourish:


    Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” — JFK
    “It is difficult to abolish prejudice in those bereft of ideas. The more hatred is superficial, the more it runs deep.” — Farewell America (1968)

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