A law professor at D.C.’s Washington College of Law at American University, who is identified with civil rights issues, discovered that someone had posted a handwritten flyer reading “All Lives Matter” on his door.
A normal, proportionate, hinged, response would be to ponder the multifaceted nuances of those three words, muse quickly about why anyone would feel moved to leave such a message anonymously, and worry about the Nationals starting pitching, perhaps. Ah, but this is 2016, so hinged is uncool and so 2008. Thus the faculty member complained to the Dean and the faculty, who both felt that writing “all lives matter” on a flyer is perilously close to hanging a noose or writing KKK or burning a cross: Racial harassment and intimidation!
Quoth Claudio Grossman, the Dean:
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.
Freaketh out the WCL faculty:
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.
Learning of this latest escalation in the chilling of free speech on campus and the determination to make university students quail in fear over disturbing the “safe space” of suddenly hyper-delicate black students, Gail Heriot and Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, speaking on their own and not in their official capacities, wrote to Dean Grossman, saying in part…
“The response of American University faculty and staff was nothing short of Orwellian…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.”
The one undeniable statement in the message from Heriot and Kirsanow is “This makes American University look foolish.” Does it ever. I taught legal ethics for two years at the Washington College of Law, and my first thought when reading this story was, “Well, there’s one resume credential I won’t be including any more!” If the faculty and dean of a law school can’t reason any better than this, what likelihood is there that the school is any damn good? Would you trust a lawyer who was trained to think like this?
Here, let a former faculty members clear up some things:
1.. Context is everything. I explained in an earlier post a context in which “All lives matter”could be legitimately deemed dismissive and worthy of an apology:
If an activist says to me, “too many children go to bed hungry!” and my retort is, “Too many people go to bed hungry!”, the unspoken argument is “So stop acting like children are a special problem!” If I say, “We need peace in Syria,” and a friend’s response is “We need to end war, period!”, I view that as an effort to minimize my concerns by launching it from the realm of a specific issue into vague, generic territory. “Black Lives Matter!” in the context of recent police episodes where African Americans died under circumstances that many believe show police callousness and excessive force against blacks is a distinct assertion that suggests that the law enforcement and justice systems do not currently function as if black lives matter as much as white lives. It is true that “All Lives Matter” includes the larger subset “black lives matter”; it is also true that it blurs the issue at hand, and dilutes the protesters’ point.
Even this, however, could not possibly be called “harassing, intimidating or threatening.” In the context described above, it is disagreement—perhaps callous disagreement, perhaps cowardly disagreement, but still only that. The message on the door has no context, however. I cannot be definitively said to mean anything.
2. Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,’ and sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, a sign that says “All Lives Matter” is just a sign that says “All Lives Matter.” In fact, legal reasoning would begin with that assumption: after all, res ipsa loquitur.
3. What could “All Lives Matter” mean out of a specific context? Let’s see…
- It might mean that black lives don’t mean any more (or less) than any other lives. This is undeniably true, and meaning this, the statement is benign and inoffensive.
- It might be code for “white lives matter more than black lives,” according to the Dean, because, he says, “some” mean it that way. The words do not mean that, however. Does a meaning that contradicts the words of a statement prevail over the clear meaning of the statement’s words because of that statement’s use by “some”? That doesn’t comport with my understanding of contract construction, or any other legal construction principle.
- It might mean that the group Black Lives Matter is a race-baiting, anti-democratic, racist movement based on lies and intimidation (“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” is still on its website), and should not be accorded special deference on a campus, by professors, or anyone else. That seems to be what the Dean thinks the phrase means, although he describes the group somewhat differently, and I would say, absurdly deferentially. Nevertheless, taking a shot at BLM is neither a sign of white supremacy nor “harassing, intimidating or threatening” conduct. The members of Black Lives Matter are the experts at harassing, intimidating and threatening.
No plausible meaning of a hand lettered sign that reads “All Lives Matter” justifies the embarrassing law school response, unless that law school has abandoned the Constitutional, intellectual and academic principles all law schools are ethically obligated to defend. That appears to be exactly what the Washington College of Law has done.
This nonsense will stop when a substantial number of students leave a school en masse after it has devalued their degrees like American University’s law school just did. The students would be heroes, and other university’s administrators would receive a sobering and necessary message.