Below is my column on the record defamation verdict against Oberlin College and its implications for higher education. Obviously, I am quite critical of the actions of the college. What is the most striking aspect of this story is how completely unapologetic the college remains. There is little evidence of objective reevaluation of its actions such as the alleged demand that this bakery give first-time shoplifters from Oberlin a pass. There are three thousand students at Oberlin. There would be little left on the shelves if the word got out of a one-time pass where students could use their free shoplifting trip at Gibson’s.
In the meantime, alumni will be asked to support a college that may have burned tens of millions of dollars in just one incident. How many scholarships could have been granted for $33-$44 million? The annual tuition is $55,000. That is over 750 students who could have received free scholarships. Instead, over a stolen bottle of wine, the college has dug itself into a massive hole . . . and it is still digging.
Two years ago, I wrote a column about a controversy involving Oberlin College and allegations of racism leveled against the family-owned Gibson’s Bakery. The bakery appears unfairly attacked for an incident involving African-American students — an incident that the college proceeded to address without any semblance of objectively or fairness toward the long-standing local bakery. I said that the time that the bakery had ample reason to sue. Well, now an Ohio jury has hit Oberlin College with crushing damages of an $11.2 million. What is most disturbing is the failure of any action taken against the college president and other officials who not only allowed these abuses to occur but then took a remarkably bad case to court at a loss in millions in damages and fees. The cost of poor judgment shown by college officials in this controversy is magnified by bad case law that it creates potentially for free speech. And the jury has not even convened yet to consider punitive damages.
After a high school senior chose to deviate from a pre-approved speech at an event and instead discussed allegations of bullying and assault at the school, administrators provided a learning opportunity of what bullying is really about–banning the student from his graduation walk.
While the school could have simply let the matter go, it instead managed to enshrine itself in an avoidable controversy simply because it could not see beyond the administration’s collective egos and will suffer the resultant benefits of its actions: National embarrassment.
Today I have the honor of delivering a keynote speech to the 2019 Judicial Conclave in New Mexico at the Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque. I will be discussing the history, cases, and evolution of the “cultural defense” in federal and state courts. The speech is at 11:15 am on Friday at the conference held at the Hyatt.
In the 2004 slapstick comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, character Patches O’Houlihan insisted “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.” Perhaps, but can you dodge hundreds of academics declaring your sport a tool of “oppression”? That was the message at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences held in Vancouver.
President Donald Trump’s penchant for personal and derogatory remarks about his critics and opponents is well known. Many of us have objected to how Trump’s tweets and attacks have tarnished the Office of Presidency. He has already given insulting labels to various candidates in the Democratic primary. However, such attacks are not just confined to Trump. Yet, as academics, such incivility runs against our tradition of civility in discourse. It often can take no small amount of restraint, but name calling and ad hominem attacks achieve little beyond joining a race to the bottom. That level of restraint was lost this week by Laurence Tribe, a renowned academic and the Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University. While name calling is now routine, this instance is notable, and alarming, from one of the nation’s leading academics.
Tribe went after Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this week after McConnell promised to fill any Supreme Court vacancy in 2020. McConnell had led the blocking of the confirmation of Merrick Garland in 2016 by citing that fact that it was an election year. When asked what would happen if Republicans faced a vacancy in 2020, McConnell was adamant: “Oh, we’d fill it.” That was too much for Tribe who attacked McConnell in what many would view Trump-like postings.
Pulitzer prize winning author and MLK biographer David Garrow has written a disturbing piece in the British magazine Standpoint on his review of secret tapes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There have long been stories about MLK’s affairs and even discussions of reexamining his standing in the MeToo period. However, the details in this article are different and deeply unsettling, if true. If not, Garrow has ruined his own celebrated career and defamed an American icon. Either way, one would think that there would a huge amount of coverage of the allegations in the mainstream media. Instead, there has been very little coverage of the story. While Yahoo and MSN ran foreign-based stories, most of the coverage has come from newspapers outside of the United States.
We have previously discussed how speech codes and regulations are changing the way students are viewing free speech. There is now a steady message for students from elementary school to college that speech must be regulated and that even people can be punished for not just hate speech but the ill-defined category of “microaggressive” speech. Past polls showed that one-third of students believed that violence is justified in dealing with some exercises of speech. Now a survey of college students found almost half do not believe that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment — a chilling indication of the collapsing support for traditional free speech values on our campuses.
For 17 years, astronomers at a massive radio telescope in Australia at the Parkes Observatory have been searching for the source of an alien signal of “perytons.” With a new retrofit, they finally were able to isolate the source: their microwave in the kitchen.
We previously discussed the opposition to House Dean Ronald S. Sullivan Jr, a Harvard Law professor, after he decided to represent accused sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein. The protests raise serious concerns over academic and professional freedom, particularly for law professors who often represent unpopular clients. The Harvard Administration did not offer significant support for such values and some deans participated or attended protests despite a letter from dozens of law professors raising the same concerns. The letter from Dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, is maddeningly vague and does not address any of these concerns over the reasons for firing Sullivan and his wife as deans at the Winstrop House.
We have seen a litany of attacks on conservative and pro-life students on college campuses in the last couple of years. Even professors have joined in such attacks, including one who pleaded guilty to assault and was supported by other faculty members and even honored at other schools. The most recent example is an attack on a member of the pro-life group Created Equal at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The attack was caught on video (below) and student Jillian Ward, 19, was charged.
As many of you know, I have long lamented the rising intolerance shown at colleges and universities over free speech. Both faculty and students now regularly fight to prevent people from speaking rather than allow a diverse array of views and experiences on campuses. Fortunately, most law schools have sufficient free speech advocates to counter such moves. However, this week the University of Southern California Law School joined this ignoble list when the school pushed Jeh Johnson, the former Obama Secretary of Homeland Security, to withdraw as the commencement speaker. Johnson was a wonderful choice for the graduation and could share not just his incredible career but his powerful personal story with the law students. Instead, he was told by Dean Andrew Guzman that there were “concerns” about his appearance.