American University’s campus (Evy Mages For The Washington Post)

Earlier this month, someone left a hand-written flier on the door of a faculty member’s office at American University’s Washington College of Law that read, “All Lives Matter.”

It didn’t go unnoticed.

That phrase — to some, code language for a racist rejection of an important cultural wake-up call, for others, an idealistic appeal for a simple, more universal truth — set off a series of reactions.

A large group of faculty were offended, saying the phrase was used by white supremacists. Students held a community forum.

And a couple of professors on a national civil-rights commission asked the dean, incredulously, “What is wrong with your faculty and staff members?”

The variety of responses, and their intensity, illustrated how fraught the topic of race is on campuses across the country, how divisive, and how alert people are to differences.

Last year, the slogan “Black Lives Matter” spread nationally after several black men were killed by police in circumstances that touched off controversy and protests; the phrase became for many a symbol of a nascent and powerful civil-rights movement.


Members of Black Lives Matter DMV participate in the annual Martin Luther King Holiday Peace Walk and Parade, on Jan. 18, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

After spring break, Washington College of Law Dean Claudio Grossman wrote to the law school community to tell them of the “very disturbing incident.”

The flier was left anonymously on the door of the office of a faculty member “with a national reputation for doing important work on issues of racial justice in the criminal justice system.”

Grossman wrote that, “Although the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ may sound benign, it sometimes has been used as a rallying cry by some groups who oppose the Black Lives Matter Movement and seek to silence it.”

Scores of faculty signed a letter decrying the flier, writing, in part, “… the message appears intended by the messenger to be an attempt to silence and intimidate an opposing viewpoint, not an effort to communicate a different perspective.

“… The ‘All Lives Matter’ sign might seem to be a benign message with no ill intent, but it has become a rallying cry for many who espouse ideas of white supremacy and overt racism, as well as those who do not believe the laws should equally protect those who have a different skin color or religion.”

Then two members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — speaking as individuals, not for the commission — wrote to the dean.

“The response of American University faculty and staff was nothing short of Orwellian,” Gail Heriot and Peter Kirsanow wrote, in part. They also wrote:

“Nearly sixty members of the law faculty and staff signed a letter calling this an ‘act of intolerance,’ because it refers to ‘all lives’ rather than only ‘black lives.’

“This makes American University look foolish.

“Even sillier, the letter calls this obviously true statement — that the lives of all members of the human species are valuable — ‘a rallying cry for many who espouse ideas of white supremacy.’

“While we know that President Obama has stated that ‘all lives matter,’ we are not personally aware of any cases in which white supremacists (a rare species these days) have made that statement.

“Equating a student making a legitimate and utterly unobjectionable point with a white supremacist is nonsensical.”

(Obama, in explaining why he does not think the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is offensive and that he does not think the protesters are suggesting other people’s lives don’t matter, said in October, “I think everybody understands all lives matter.”)

By phone, Heriot, a professor of law at the University of San Diego, said that when she saw the letter from the professors, “My reaction was that this was — quite outrageous. I just wish that people in positions of authority, like members of a law-school faculty, would try not to make things worse by engaging in name-calling of this kind.

“I thought this was an occasion upon which I really needed to say something. If nobody talks back — things just spiral out of control.

“Lawyers need to be trained to deal with situations with sympathy for both sides, understanding the argument on both sides. And to accuse someone of making such an unobjectionable statement as being allied with white supremacists is over the top.”

It’s a sign of the times, she said. “I don’t think this would have happened 30 years ago, or five years ago. The world is getting more politically tribal. It worries me a lot. I’m not just seeing it in this instance but in  many situations,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the law school said in an emailed statement: “Our response to this letter is everyone is entitled to his or her view, including two of the eight members of the Commission. The school has already expressed its view.”

Last week, students held an event promoted as a “WCL Community Town Hall Meeting addressing ‘All Lives Matter.’ ” Students from the group that organized it and from the Black Law Students Association did not respond to requests for comment.

“The letter sent to our community following the original event was overwhelmingly well received here, and students sympathetic to the letter organized an open forum in March that went very well,” the school spokeswoman wrote. “There has been no other issue on this topic inside the law school during the last month.”

Here is the complete letter from Heriot and Kirsanow:

 

Here is the full text of the letter from the dean:

Dear AUWCL Community Members:

I hope that your Spring Break was an enjoyable one. I write to share with you some details concerning a very disturbing incident that happened at the law school just as Spring Break commenced. On Friday, March 4th, a handwritten flier with the words “All Lives Matter” was attached to the office doorframe of a faculty member of color – a colleague with a national reputation for doing important work on issues of racial justice in the criminal justice system. The flyer was placed above an existing announcement regarding a racial justice volunteer opportunity, and in close proximity to several fliers regarding social justice activities and events at the law school.

As many of you are aware, there has been heightened discussion about the issue of race in the criminal justice system as a result of the numerous killings of unarmed black men, women and children by law enforcement authorities. “Black Lives Matter” was first used as a call to action after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. This phrase has since become a national movement and organization in support of African Americans who have been the victims of state violence. Although the phrase “All Lives Matter” may sound benign, it sometimes has been used as a rallying cry by some groups who oppose the Black Lives Matter Movement and seek to silence it.

We are proud, here at the Washington College of Law, to enjoy a community that promotes and encourages vigorous discussion and debate about important and controversial issues facing our society. Providing a safe space for this kind of engagement is one of our core values. The Washington College of Law is also an institution and community that respects human dignity, diversity, and inclusion. None of these values, long at the heart of our institution, are in conflict. To the contrary, they work together to make our law school’s intellectual life an especially vibrant, rich, and welcoming one.

Therefore, it is vital that we all express our beliefs with civility and in a time, place and manner that is conducive to effective communication and that promotes further discussion. The circumstances and manner of placing this flier on a community member’s door do not involve the kind of civil and thoughtful discourse that we encourage and aspire to in our community, and indeed may serve to intimidate others and discourage their full participation in the marketplace of ideas.

No member of this community is permitted to engage in harassing, intimidating or threatening behavior towards any other community member. The person who posted this flier did so anonymously and surreptitiously, at a time and in a manner that, regardless of his or her actual intent, had the effect of harassing and intimidating that faculty member as well as others – students, faculty, and staff alike – who seek and deserve to study and work in a safe and non-threatening environment.

I strongly encourage continued discussion and debate about race and our justice system and about any and all issues of concern to our diverse community. But this discussion and debate must happen in settings and forms that serve to promote discussion, not stifle it, and that make all members of our community feel empowered, safe and free to express their views.

I wish you a productive and successful second half to the spring semester and look forward to opportunities to share and deepen the practice of respectful discussion and education on issues of respect, justice and pluralism.

Here is the full text of the letter from some faculty and staff:

An Important Message to the WCL Community

We write this message, as members of the American University Washington College of Law (WCL) faculty and staff, in response to an incident of intolerance within the community. We begin by acknowledging that one of the great attributes of the WCL community is the rich atmosphere of inclusiveness and diversity.  We take great pride in having one of the most diverse law schools in the United States, with women comprising over 40% of our graduates, and with significant diversity among our faculty and staff.  We are home to a range of perspectives and experiences, all of which contribute to healthy intellectual exchanges among members of our community.  This vibrant environment allows us to learn from each other and reflect on ideas and perspectives different from our own.

Right before Spring Break, someone anonymously placed a handwritten “All Lives Matter” sign on the door of a faculty member.  The sign was positioned directly above a flyer for a training program on police violence and near flyers for other social justice and racial equality events.  In context, the message appears intended by the messenger to be an attempt to silence and intimidate an opposing viewpoint, not an effort to communicate a different perspective. This event presents an opportunity for the WCL community to step back, reflect, and learn.

The “All Lives Matter” sign might seem to be a benign message with no ill intent, but it has become a rallying cry for many who espouse ideas of white supremacy and overt racism, as well as those who do not believe the laws should equally protect those who have a different skin color or religion. Importantly, the phrase “All Lives Matter” has been used in direct response to “Black Lives Matter,” a human rights movement that has become synonymous with protests over police killings of unarmed black men and boys.  The phrase seeks to convey the fact that black people are not expendable, even though the use of lethal force by some in law enforcement suggest that black lives do not matter as much as the lives of other people they encounter.  In a perfect world, no one would have to be reminded that black lives matter because all lives would be treated with the same respect and dignity.

Leaving an anonymous sign on a professor’s door is not an acceptable way to have a discussion about controversial issues.  Talking about controversial and divisive issues can be very difficult, but we must have these conversations in a respectful way.  Also, we must be open to being educated about diverse perspectives. Conversations on race, gender, sexual identity, and nationality will occur in a wide range of classes.  Our faculty must continue to facilitate discussions on these topics, and we remain committed to healthy dialogue and debate. We recognize that there is room for respectfully disagreeing with others’ perspectives.  Approaching someone and definitively stating your view as if there is only one possible perspective on the issue is not conducive to a constructive dialogue.  There is value in simply asking someone, “If you feel comfortable, I would like to talk to you sometime about X.  I have been reading a lot about the topic, and I am interested in hearing your perspective.”  Few would take offense at your non-confrontational invitation to have the conversation.  The diverse law school environment is a place to perfect the level of civility that should permeate our personal and professional lives.  We hope that everyone at WCL will communicate with each other in a way that embodies our core values of diversity, inclusion and tolerance.