I have previously written about the growing intolerance of faculty and students for opposing views and speech. Recently, however, there has been a further erosion in long-standing principles of free speech and academic freedom in the targeting of law professors for representing unpopular clients. Harvard University has been widely denounced for its removal of Law Professor Ronald Sullivan and his wife Stephanie Robinson as “House Deans” after Sullivan agreed to represent former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in his criminal trial. Columbia effectively forced out Columbia University law professor Elizabeth Lederer due to her prior work as a prosecutor in the “Central Park Five” case. It appears that no speech or even the principle of the presumption of innocence is to be recognized in the new realities of higher education.
Sullivan this week publicly denounced his treatment in a video statement June 12 titled, “When Harvard Stumbles.” Students were open in their demands for his removal because they simply disliked one of his clients.
A petition calling for the dean’s removal stated in part
“For those of you who are members of Winthrop House, do you really want to one day accept your Diploma from someone who for whatever reason, professional or personal, believes it is okay to defend such a prominent figure at the centre of the #MeToo movement?”
In her case, Columbia University law professor Elizabeth Lederer was canned for work as a prosecutor decades earlier in the Central Park Five case. Nexflix recently released “When They See Us,” a series highlighting the experiences of the Central Park Five, who were wrongfully convicted of rape and sexual assault in the Central Park Jogger case of 1989. The film highlighted Lederer’s work in the case. Lederer has contested the film as historically inaccurate and has always maintained that a multimillion dollars settlement with the defendants was a mistake and that, even if they were not guilty of the rape, they were guilty of other serious crimes.
A petition to terminate Lederer garnered 10,000 signatures and in a letter published to the university, Columbia Law School dean Gillian Lester said that the miniseries “reignited a painful — and vital — national conversation about race, identity, and criminal justice.”
The merits of the case (like the merits of the Weinstein case) are immaterial to the underlying rights of free speech, academic freedom, and free association. The Deans at Harvard and Columbia trashed these rights in an effort to appease protesters. The cost of those decisions will only grow at these institutions — much like the costs recently imposed on Oberlin for its yielding to protesters in defaming a local grocery.
The failure of most faculty to oppose these moves shows how defining values of American higher education are being increasingly pushed aside in an age of rage.