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Furor at UW Law over Professor’s Classroom Comments

For the past two weeks at the University of Wisconsin Law School, several students have been decrying what they see as racially insensitive remarks made by a tenured professor during class. According to the campus newspaper, The Badger Herald, Professor Leonard Kaplan made the provocative remarks about the Hmong people, an ethnic group from Southeast Asia with a sizeable population in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The article quoted from an e-mail sent to law school students by KaShia Moua, a Hmong student (although it is not clear whether she was in the class at the time). Moua alleged that Professor Kaplan said, among other things: “Hmong men have no talent other than to kill,” “all 2nd generation Hmong end up in gangs and other criminal activity,” and “all Hmong men purchase their wives.” Moua concluded that Professor Kaplan violated students’ rights and “made the unfortunate choice to turn his classroom into a public platform for him to spew his racist and close-minded [sic] beliefs about the Hmong.”

Professor Kaplan has denied meaning any offense, and says that he was merely trying to illustrate how some defendants in cases of serious crime, like rape, might rely on cultural practices and attitudes for a defense.

Some students have demanded that Professor Kaplan publicly apologize for his remarks; according to the Chicago Sun-Times, however, Law School Dean Kenneth Davis has rightly said that the decision about whether to apologize should be made by Kaplan himself. Yet, according to an Associated Press story, Dean Davis has also said that Professor Kaplan’s remarks were “inconsistent with the expectations to which we hold our faculty.”

To date, calls for a formal reprimand have not been answered by the administration. Professors—especially tenured ones—enjoy broad discretion in choosing the manner in which to present relevant material, and a provocative teaching style is a professor’s prerogative. Indeed, several students have observed that the comments were in line with Professor Kaplan’s trademark style.  The University of Wisconsin Law School must be careful not to stifle provocative but meaningful discussion of sensitive issues, and its response to this controversy will be revealing in this respect. So far, so good—the administration seems content to let students meet Professor Kaplan’s comments with some of their own. In the meantime, FIRE will be watching.

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