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Harvard Law Professor: Students Want Profs to Drop Classes on Rape Law

According to Harvard Law School Professor Jeannie Suk, she and her colleagues have been pressured by students to avoid writing exam questions involving sexual violence or even teaching about the law regarding sexual violence in order to protect students from potential distress.

Like the students arguing they are too traumatized by recent grand jury decisions to complete their final exams, Suk’s account, published in The New Yorker yesterday, is a perverse result of a culture in which intellectual and emotional comfort is prioritized over the core functions of a university. Suk writes about student demands, many of which defy logic and common sense:

Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic. ... Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well. … Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress.

Suk aptly compares the situation to one in which a medical student training to be a surgeon cannot handle the sight of blood. Being a competent lawyer requires knowledge of a range of legal topics, which is why law school is designed to ensure students are familiar with basic areas of law—torts, criminal law, Constitutional law, contracts, property, and civil procedure. Regardless of the narrowness of one’s law practice, there’s a reason that becoming a licensed attorney requires a basic knowledge of these areas: legal matters frequently touch on more than one of them.

It’s true that rape is not an easy topic of discussion, like many of the topics included in criminal law classes. Crime is exceedingly unpleasant (my first week of law school was spent reading about murdered babies), and this will never change. It defies reason to exempt discussions of rape, perhaps the second-most serious crime (after murder), from what is intended to be a meaningful survey of the law.

Suk offers another example of the kind of nonsensical requests students are making:

One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word “violate” in class—as in “Does this conduct violate the law?”—because the word was triggering.

The study of law relies on precision and consistency of language, reflected in our nation’s (and Great Britain’s) rich history of hundreds of years of written court decisions, statutes, and other legal documents. Law schools cannot simply drop words from their vocabularies because of other contexts in which they might be used.

Suk describes the effect these pressures are having on her colleagues:

About a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students. Even seasoned teachers of criminal law, at law schools across the country, have confided that they are seriously considering dropping rape law and other topics related to sex and gender violence. Both men and women teachers seem frightened of discussion, because they are afraid of injuring others or being injured themselves.

It is profoundly troubling that faculty at institutions of higher education—supposedly “elite” schools, no less!—would be forced even to consider not teaching such a critically important subject at the behest of those insisting on emotional comfort. As Suk argues, “If the topic of sexual assault were to leave the law-school classroom, it would be a tremendous loss—above all to victims of sexual assault.” It should go without saying that solving a problem requires talking about it, learning about its history, and—where they exist—discussing the surrounding legal issues. Is the point of law school to make future lawyers feel comfortable, or is it to enable them to be zealous advocates for their clients, who may include victims of rape and other crimes?

If providing students with the knowledge and skills to become excellent lawyers is no longer to be prioritized over comfort, future generations of lawyers may be spared the emotional discomfort that comes with learning about Korematsu v. United States (1944) or Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Of course, they also won’t be able to recognize the signs if history is about to repeat itself.

Read the rest of Suk’s piece in The New Yorker.

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