OK, not really, but it better be good after yesterday’s potpourri never made it off the launch pad due to a series of unfortunate events. I’m using “The Greatest Legal Ethics Seminar Ever Taught!” as a title for an upcoming program I’m writing now, so the rhetoric is on my mind. My teaching partner complained that the title really puts the pressure on us to be outstanding. And that’s the point…
1. Harvard’s new President punts. Of course. The Harvard alumni magazine this month was notably light on criticism of the Ronald Sullivan fiasco, with only two critical letters on the topic, one of which made the suggestion that it might be a “conflict of interest” for someone who is defending a #MeToo villain to also serve as a residential faculty member (what was previously called a “House Master,” but that triggered some delicate students who felt it evoked slave-holders. No really. I’m serious. I don’t make this stuff up. Organizations capitulate to these complaints now, like Major League Baseball changing the name of the “Disabled List” because disabled rights activists complained). It is assuredly NOT a conflict of interest, though, by any definition but an erroneous one.
Deeper in the magazine, we learn that new President of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow, was asked during a faculty meeting about his views on the episode. His response was essentially a Harvard version of Ralph Kramden’s immortal “huminhuminahumina” when “The Honyemooners” hero had no explanation for some fiasco of his own engineering. Bacow said he would respect “the locus of authority,” meaning College Dean Rakesh Khuratna, who fired Sullivan after joining in student protests over the law professor and lawyer doing exactly what lawyers are supposed to do.
So now we know that, not for the first time, Harvard is being led by a weenie. What should he have said? How about “I am firing Dean Khuratna, and offering Prof. Sullivan his position back. Any Winthrop House students who feel “unsafe” are welcome to transfer to Yale”?
Most news media gave inadequate coverage to this story, and none, in my view, sufficiently condemned the university’s actions or the un-American values they represent. At least the New York Times is keeping the episode before its readers by publishing an op-ed by Sullivan titled “Why Harvard Was Wrong to Make Me Step Down.”
2. Insuring the life of a son in peril. Is this unethical somehow? It honestly never occurred to me. When I had to give a speech in Lagos, Nigeria, one of the most dangerous cites on Earth, my wife tried to take out a policy on my life with her as the beneficiary. I thought it was a good and prudent idea. But in Phillip Galane’s “Social Q’s” advice column, a son writes that he is still angry, decades later, that his late father did this , writing in part,
I served as a combat medic in Vietnam when I was 19. …I came home safe. When I did, my father told me he’d taken a life insurance policy on me for $50,000…. I was so stunned that he was willing to profit from my death that I never said a word about this to anyone. My parents are long dead. I would like to discuss this with my siblings, but I don’t want to cause a rift. Your thoughts?
My thoughts are: “Get over it, and seek psychiatric help, not advice from a columnist. Are parents of the Sandy Spring shooting victims ‘profiting’ from their dead children’s death when they receive monetary damages and charity grants? Married couples typically have life insurance policies that pay the other partner: is this callous, somehow? The loss of any family member is a horrible blow to loved ones, both emotionally and practically (I know I’m counting on our son to help us negotiate our Golden Years) and insurance exists to cushion the blow, not for ‘profit.'”
3. Good news for the First Amendment and Freedom of Expression: Yesterday, SCOTUS struck down the Lanham Act’s ban on on “immoral and scandalous” trademarks as unconstitutional, concluding that it ran afoul of the First Amendment.
You will recall that Harry Reid, Democratic Senators, and the Obama Patent Office tried to use the Lanham Act to force the Washington Redskins to change the team name and logo. This was a 6-3 decision that crossed conservative-liberal lines, and I won a million dollar bet with myself I made before checking that Justice Sotomayor would be one of the dissenters, on the grounds that future trademarks may hurt someone’s feelings. Sure enough, the Touchy-Feely Justice was, along with Chief Justice Roberts (who argued the old-fashioned position that the government should not give “aid and comfort” to those who use obscene and vulgar words) and Justice Breyer, who cited dubious research indicating that swear words and slurs have special powers to harm. “Just think,” Breyer wrote, “about how you might react if you saw someone wearing a T-shirt or using a product emblazoned with an odious racial epithet.”
That’s a Golden Rule argument for why people shouldn’t use and wear such words, not an argument for laws banning them. Sonya, of course, wrote that the majority decision will “beget unfortunate results.” This is why progressives and the Democratic Party no longer support freedom of speech. Speech doesn’t always support the results they approve of, so it should be limited.
Justice Alito, in a concurring opinion, wrote a passage that should be an “Ethical Quote of The Month,” but since this has to be the The Greatest Morning Warm-Up Ever Blogged, I’ll use it here:
“Viewpoint discrimination is poison to a free society. But in many countries with constitutions or legal traditions that claim to protect freedom of speech, serious viewpoint discrimination is now tolerated, and such discrimination has become increasingly prevalent in this country.”
4. Confirmshaming. I learned today that there is a name for the obnoxious practice increasingly used by various websites. A box pops up asking you to pay to get past a paywall, or to remove your ad-blocker, or to agree to be flooded with email alerts, and to get rid of it, you either have to agree or check the refusal box. The box doesn’t just say “No thanks,” or “Not at this time.” It says things like, “No, I don’t care about cutting-edge news reporting” or, “No. I’m content to be a freeloader and refuse to pay a minimal price to support the vital work of this site.” These high pressure tactics are frowned upon in my old business of non-profit fundraising (“Sorry, even though my life has been infinitely enhanced by the education I received at _____, I won’t pledge a modest amount so that today’s students can reap the same benefits I have.”), and I resent them. I also think they are counter-productive. As long as there are other options, I will not frequent websites that force me to “sign” self-deprecating statements.
5. Does anybody objective doubt this is true? Let’s begin, as usual, by the Ethics Alarms disclaimer that Project Veritas is an unethical organization that uses unethical methods, primarily dishonesty. Nonetheless, once their unethical methods bear fruit, we have no obligation to pretend they don’t exist.
Project Veritas posted a video of a Google executive, Jen Gennai, head of Responsible Innovation at Google Global Affairs, appearing to admit that the company uses its immense power to place its fist on the political scales. The video shows her saying to an undercover Project Veritas investigator,
“Elizabeth Warren is saying that we should break up Google. And like, I love her but she’s very misguided, like that will not make it better, it will make it worse because now all these smaller companies who don’t have the same resources that we do will be charged with preventing the next Trump situation. It’s like a small company cannot do that,”
Gennai explained: “I was having a casual chat with someone at a restaurant and used some imprecise language. Project Veritas got me. Well done.” Then she called the Project Veritas allegations “absolute, unadulterated nonsense.”
How can they be nonsense? What is the innocent meaning that the “imprecise language” was supposed to convey?
It’s also fascinating that YouTube took down the video, don’t you think? [Pointer: Tyler O’Neill]