Kaminer on Law Students and Academic Freedom

By on July 27, 2009

Noted civil libertarian, lawyer, and FIRE Board of Advisors member Wendy Kaminer has an article on The Atlantic‘s website today about the withdrawal of Singaporean law professor (and former member of Singapore’s Parliament) Thio Li-ann from a visiting position at New York University School of Law over views that many believe to be anti-gay.

As controversy over Thio’s past statements about homosexuality grew on campus, NYU Law School Dean Richard Revesz refused to revoke Thio’s appointment, saying that "academic freedom requires that this disagreement express itself through vigorous, civil debate, rather than an attempt to suppress those views." But some students and others evidently didn’t agree. They petitioned NYU to revoke Thio’s appointment, leading Thio herself to decline the position.

Kaminer points out that while the controversy is therefore over, the fact that the petition presented Thio’s appointment as a violation of NYU’s own nondiscrimination policy is an ominous development for academic freedom:

In other words, gay students (and members of other historically disadvantaged groups) are said to suffer actual discrimination when the administration hires faculty members who argue against anti-discrimination laws.  This confusion of speech and action — of advocating for discrimination and actually engaging in it — is common in academia, where academic freedom is too often limited to the freedom to advance prevailing ideals of equality. 

At the risk of quoting too much of Kaminer’s excellent blog entry, she goes on to explain with great clarity why this is such a severe problem:

The refusal of law students even to hear opposing views, reflecting opposing moral codes, is particularly worrisome. I wouldn’t want one of these future lawyers ever advocating for me. They’re unlikely to learn how to argue effectively if they limit their law school debates to matters about which only presumptively reasonable people disagree. Uniformity of opinion breeds complacency, close-mindedness, and a tendency to mistake attitudes for arguments.

Kaminer is right on target. As I was reminded when FIRE Co-founder Harvey Silverglate was here last week, Harvey, who is Jewish, was assigned to defend members of the American Nazi Party from a patently unlawful arrest early on in his careerand he won. Lawyers must be able to distinguish the merits of an argument or a case from the attitudes of those who are making that argument or who are involved in that case. I fear that this isn’t the message that NYU law students will take from Thio’s withdrawal.

(For those who are curious, here is Thio’s speech to the Singaporean parliament that appears to have sparked the controversy.)