Georgetown Law Dean William Treanor is reportedly close to making a decision on whether to fire Ilya Shapiro as Executive Director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution. Shapiro is under fire for his opposition to the pledge by President Joe Biden to limit consideration for the next Supreme Court nominee to a black female. Shapiro sent out a horrendously badly worded tweet that supported a liberal Indian-American jurist as opposed to a “lesser black woman.” He later removed the tweet and repeatedly apologized. However, Georgetown University’s Black Law Students Association and others are demanding his termination. I entirely understand the outrage over the language used in the tweet, but it does not warrant termination in my view. The controversy raises a stark choice for Georgetown in supporting or discarding principles of free speech and academic freedom.
Various politicians and commentators have raised concerns over President Biden’s use of such threshold exclusionary criteria. Indeed, the vast majority of the public (including Democrats) do not support the pledge to only consider black women for the vacancy on the Court.
On Wednesday, however, Shapiro tweeted the following:
Objectively best pick for Biden is Sri Srinivasan, who is solid prog & v smart. Even has identify politics benefit of being first Asian (Indian) American. But alas doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman. Thank heaven for small favors?
Because Biden said he’s only consider[ing] black women for SCOTUS, his nominee will always have an asterisk attached. Fitting that the Court takes up affirmative action next term.
I sincerely and deeply apologize for some poorly drafted tweets I posted late Wednesday night. Issues of race are of course quite sensitive, and debates over affirmative action are always fraught. My intent was to convey my opinion that excluding potential Supreme Court candidates, most notably Chief Judge Srinivasan, simply because of their race or gender, was wrong and harmful to the long term reputation of the Court. It was not to cast aspersions on the qualifications of a whole group of people, let alone question their worth as human beings. A person’s dignity and worth simply do not, and should not, depend on any immutable characteristic. Those who know me know that I am sincere about these sentiments, and I would be more than happy to meet with any of you who have doubts about the quality of my heart.
In seeking to join the Georgetown community, I wanted to contribute to your worthy mission to educate students, inform the public, and engage in the battle of legal ideas that lead to justice and fairness. I still want to do that. Recklessly framed tweets like this week’s obviously don’t advance that mission, for which I am also truly sorry. Regardless of whether anyone agrees or disagrees with me on a host of legal and policy issues, I can and will do better with regard to how I communicate my positions.
We have previously discussed such controversial statements made by faculty members on social media. My response to these controversies is predictable. I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating white people,” denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements. I also defended the free speech rights of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence.
Even when faculty engage in hateful acts on campus, however, there is a notable difference in how universities respond depending on the viewpoint. At the University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display. In the meantime, academics and deans have said that there is no free speech protection for offensive or “disingenuous” speech. CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,” Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned after she made a single analogy to acting like a “slaveholder” as a self-criticism for failing to achieve equity and reparations for black faculty and students). We also previously discussed the case of Fresno State University Public Health Professor Dr. Gregory Thatcher who recruited students to destroy pro-life messages written on the sidewalks and wrongly told the pro-life students that they had no free speech rights in the matter.
Georgetown has been the focus of a number of free speech controversies in recent years (here and here and here). Terminating Shapiro would cause lasting damage to the university and its express support for free speech. While he is a lecturer rather than a tenured professor, he is entitled to the protection of both academic freedom and free speech.
Shapiro is an accomplished scholar, writer, and commentator. His books include Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Court (2020). He regularly provides commentary in the media and is a legal consultant to CBS News.
Dean Treanor should refuse to take this step not due to any agreement with Shapiro but rather due to Shapiro’s right to disagree with others. Free speech is both the obligation and the solution in this controversy. Critics are free to protest or condemn his views. What they should not be able to do is to silence him as a member of the faculty.