Many of us criticized statements attributed to Attorney General Bill Barr this week calling for the use of sedition laws against rioters. However, instead of raising constitutional or statutory objections, Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe instead raised Barr’s Catholic faith in a completely unwarranted and unfounded tweet. The response to the reference was total silence. Not a single professor at Harvard or elsewhere chastised the use of a person’s religion in such commentary. This is not the first profane or prejudiced statement by Tribe.
Attorney General William Barr reportedly told federal prosecutors to move aggressively against rioters. That is nothing new. However, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal reported that Barr urged prosecutors to seek federal charges that included sedition laws designed for those who conspire to overthrow the U.S. government. The WSJ article stated “[Barr] encouraged the prosecutors to seek a number federal charges, including under a rarely used sedition law, even when state charges could apply, the people said.” (A U.S. Attorney has come out against allegations in the NYT article, including the allegation that Barr wanted the Seattle mayor criminally charged).
I have handled cases raising sedition or treason allegations as criminal defense counsel. It is entirely inappropriate and abusive to treat such protests as a form of sedition. It would not only fail in most such cases but it would return the Justice Department to a dark period of the use of such laws against forms of political dissent. There are ample criminal laws to address rioters. There is no reason to use sedition laws to combat rioting. I also believe that Barr’s escalating rhetoric is undermining the role of the Justice Department in addressing both the protests and the upcoming election.
Tribe however was not content with calling out Barr on a legal basis. He introduced his presumed religious beliefs: “It’s way beyond monarchical. It’s paranoid and dictatorial. Opus Dei, anyone?” It is like someone disagreeing with Alan Dershowitz and noting that he is a Jew or incorrectly referring to Kabbalah.
We have often discussed how conservatives have faced national condemnations and campaigns to be fired for dissenting views, often being labeled as “racists” for questioning aspects of the current protests or underlying claims. However, there is a conspicuous silence in the media when liberal academics engage in false or outrageous comments.
The level of intolerance in Tribe’s remarks is breathtaking. Making this even more outrageous is that Barr is not Opus Dei, as discussed last weekend in the Washington Post. He is a deeply religious Catholic. As Tom Hamburger wrote in the Post, Barr has shown tolerance for opposing values, including supporting a friend’s same-sex marriage.
None of that matters, of course. Raising the religion of Barr is an exercise of raw religious intolerance and prejudice. Yet, no one called out Tribe because such concerns are rarely acknowledged when the targets are on the right.
This type of personal assault has become a type of signature for Tribe, who regularly engaged in juvenile and vulgar attacks on those who hold opposing legal views. Yet, the media ignores these unhinged attacks and continues to cite Tribe in his continual criticism of Trump. Tribe has called Trump a “terrorist” and supported a long litany of highly dubious criminal theories. Tribe called Senator Mitch McConnell a “flagrant dickhead!” and loves to use Trump-like insults like “McTurtle” to refer to the Senator. Tribe thrills his followers by referring to Trump as a “Dick” or “dickhead in chief.” (I have also been the subject of such vulgar attacks for holding legal views different from Tribe’s). Such slurs and invectives are all ignored. Indeed, the only time Tribe generated a modicum of criticism from the left was when he referred to the selection of an African Americans like Kamala Harris for Vice President as a merely “cosmetic” choice. Rather than being the target of a petition campaign like so many conservative professors, Tribe simply moved on by renewing his personal attacks on anyone with views that might support Trump.
I could not find a single liberal commentator or professor who objected to Tribe attacking Barr for his wrongly presumed religious views. Professors lined up to (legitimately) criticize Trump for references to the Muslim faith of critics. Yet, there is no apparent problem in raising a Catholic’s faith in a put down.
The reason for the reference in this tweet is obvious and obnoxious. Calling Barr Opus Dei is like calling a Muslim lawyer a “Wahhabi” with a connotation of dangerous extremism. Putting aside that Barr is not Opus Dei, his following the movement would have nothing at all to do with using Sedition Law. Tribe’s religious intolerance is only matched by his religious ignorance. Opus Dei followers are not inherently supportive of authoritarianism. Followers believe in more strict adherence to church teachings like more conservative groups in other major religions. The use of “Opus Dei” as a type of sinister cult reference is a stereotype that circulates on the Internet, often on anti-Catholic sites.
Over the years, I have praised Tribe and even did so when raising an honest concern over his growing intolerant and hateful attacks. At a time of rising intolerance and violence, academics have an added responsibility in reinforcing basic values of civility and decency in our debates. It is possible to hold opposing views of constitutional principles without engaging in personal, let alone prejudicial, attacks. It is the abandonment of the core principles of academic discourse, dispensing with substantive dialogue in favor of profane or prejudiced diatribes.