After the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, an unusual debate unfolded at Georgetown University Law Center, not only over the legacy of the conservative scholar, but whether political correctness and a left-leaning bias had stifled the possibility of open discourse in academia.
Two professors questioned a laudatory memorial announcement that was issued by the law school; one publicly argued that the campus community would not mourn Scalia, who is one of the university’s most prominent alumni, calling him “a defender of privilege, oppression and bigotry.”
And two professors wrote a response to that, describing how personally devastating the death was for them, and decrying the email, which they characterized as saying, “in effect, your hero was a stupid bigot and we are not sad that he is dead.”
They also wrote, “This incident is symptomatic of a larger problem in academia: the utter lack of intellectual diversity among faculty, and the deep intolerance for views that dissent from the liberal orthodoxy.”
The Black Law Students Association at Georgetown followed that debate, and wrote their own response:
An Open Letter to the Georgetown Law Community
The Black Law Students Association takes issue with some of the responses and email exchanges shared with the entire Georgetown University Law Center student body in the days following Justice Scalia’s passing.
We recognize that many in the legal community, including some in our own organization, mourn the death of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, an influential and widely respected legal mind. We also understand that his passing has left many Georgetown Law students deeply saddened and we offer our sincere condolences to these students.
While we support an individual student’s choice to mourn, it must also be acknowledged that Justice Scalia’s legacy affects us in vastly different ways. As a result, some of the viewpoints expressed in the email exchange were disheartening for many in our membership. It is our hope that we can be candid with you in this letter regarding those disheartening sentiments, and as a result we can hopefully foster an environment of greater inclusiveness at Georgetown Law.
One particular email response from Professors Nick Rosenkranz and Randy Barnett decries the lack of intellectual diversity at Georgetown, citing the experiences of conservative students in the wake of Professor Gary Peller and Louis Michael Seidman’s emails:
“Although this email was upsetting to us, we could only imagine what it was like for these students. Some of them are twenty-two year-old 1Ls, less than six months into their legal education. But we did not have to wait long to find out. Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry, were their fellow students. Of particular concern to them were the students who are in Professor Peller’s class who must now attend class knowing of his contempt for Justice Scalia and his admirers, including them. How are they now to participate freely in class? What reasoning would be deemed acceptable on their exams?”
This paragraph could be edited slightly, inserting black students for conservative and libertarian students, and the effect would be the same.
In fact, this description is nearly identical to the lived and voiced experiences of many students of color at our institution.
Many Black students were also “traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry” as “22-year-old 1Ls” when the law school declined to make unprompted timely statements last school year regarding the uptick in racialized policing, law enforcement, and the lack of indictments of violent police officers.
Many Black students were also “traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry,” when fact patterns on a practice exam directly referenced the facts of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
Many Black students are also “traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry” every time a classroom micro-aggression, from a professor or student, is dismissed until it escalates into something more systemic.
Many Black students are also “traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry” as real progress on institutional anti-racism and administrative equity and inclusion is constantly delayed.
If this one email exchange exacerbated frustrations of conservative or libertarian students, imagine the impact of continuous antagonistic classroom lectures and insensitive remarks about issues that directly affect the lives of the Black students here at the Law Center. How do we speak up in class? What reasoning will be acceptable on our exams?
If our community can empathize with the hostile environment conservative students will reportedly enter as the result of the comments made by two liberal professors in an email, then they cannot turn a blind eye to the calls for sensitivity training and a concerted effort to make faculty aware of the issues that face minority students.
Many Black students are currently “shaken and angry” that Professors Rosenkranz and Barnett, two of our most respected professors, would make a callous, ill-formed analogy to the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall in their email response.The email states:
“What would be the reaction if either of us had sent a similarly-worded email to the entire student body, in violation of Georgetown email policy, upon the death of Justice Thurgood Marshall — saying that he was a bigot, and his intellectual positions were not brilliant but simplistic? Is there any doubt that the Georgetown reaction would justly be swift, dramatic, and severe?”
Justice Marshall was a tireless pillar of strength who sought equality, justice and fairness—who used his voice to uplift others and celebrate their differences to ensure that all had access to diverse, quality education. This analogy was in the poorest of tastes, especially as the country, our organization, and the law school celebrates Black History Month. It also added an additional unnecessary layer of hostility and exacerbated the racial undertones present in this entire call for mourning and respect.
Many Black students are also “shaken and angry” about comments Justice Scalia stated just months before his untimely death:
“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school where they do well.”
“They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them,” Scalia said. “I’m just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer. And maybe some — you know, when you take more, the number of blacks, really competent blacks, admitted to lesser schools, turns out to be less.”
If the late Justice Antonin Scalia were correct in his assertions, if members of our organization were relegated to a “less-advanced school,” the Black Law Students Association at Georgetown might not even have a vibrant presence on this campus to mourn his passing.
In the same spirit of understanding and empathy called for by professors, and given Justice Scalia’s often polarizing, offensive and intolerant stances, we ask that an individual’s decision of whether or not to mourn be equally respected.
Until today, many of our colleagues at our institution could not empathize with the statements of, or understand the sentiments expressed by many Black students at Georgetown Law concerning marginalization.
We were advised that law school classrooms were not meant to be a “safe space.”
We hope that in the future, professors of all political ideologies and leanings, through more collegial discourse, will offer their solidarity, strength, and support to all marginalized students fighting for greater representation, recognition, and inclusion at Georgetown Law.
However unsettling, we must not allow this emotionally-charged discourse amongst legal scholars to distract us from our purpose. There is far too much work to be done. Rather than mourning the historical figures of all races, religions and political ideologies who fought in true solidarity so that we could study the law in desegregated and diverse classrooms—we will honor them.
We will study longer. We will fight harder. We will earn our degrees. We will use the law to fight for progress—to become the next litigator, congressperson, judge or U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
A letter expressing these sentiments was also sent directly to members of the Georgetown Law administration. We ask that the university and student government expeditiously continue their individual and joint efforts to support inclusivity, encourage diversity of thought in the classroom, and denounce various forms of exclusion.
Note: This statement does not reflect the sentiments of all Black students or students of color on the campus of Georgetown Law.