Observations On The George Mason Law School Renaming Debacle

Scalia Law School

Summary: On March 31, George Mason University announced that it was changing the name of its law school, which has rapidly risen from marginal status into respectability in the last few years, to the Antonin Scalia School of Law. The reason: a 30 million dollar contribution from the Charles Koch Foundation, a.k.a. the Koch Brothers and an anonymous donor, who made the name change a condition of his or her generosity. This occurring while the various controversies over Scalia’s legacy and the Supreme Court’s deadlock since his passing were still raging guaranteed indignation from many quarters, including many students and graduates of the law school. The internet and social media communities, meanwhile, having the emotional maturity of fifth graders, concentrated its efforts at snickering over the new school’s acronym, which could be ASSoL, and the Twitter handle, #ASSLAW.

The resulting embarrassment led the school’s Dean to announce  that the name of the school was being altered to “Antonin Scalia Law School.”

Comments:

1. Ethics Alarms had a recent post expressing dismay at the willingness of baseball teams to sell the identity of their ballparks to corporations. This is much worse. George Mason is perhaps the most unjustly forgotten of all the Founders, as he was largely responsible for there being a Bill of Rights in our Constitution The fact that George Mason University and its law school has been slowly rising in prestige and visibility had helped to remedy the unjust obscurity of a historical figure to whom every citizen and the world owes a debt of thanks. George Mason’s honor, however, was considered expendable once the school’s leaders knew the price that using the law school for ideological propaganda could bring at a time of sharp partisan division.

2. Rich people have a right to use their money to make others do things that they shouldn’t or normally wouldn’t want to. The issue is whether there are ethical limits to the kinds of actions and conduct money should be used to buy. Rich families have used their assets to defeat true love, paying  unsuitable suitors to leave without explanation. Desperate celebrities have accepted checks to debase themselves on reality shows. Judas was paid to betray Jesus Christ. Where does using one’s millions to induce a university to betray its duties to alumni and students, as well as other donors and the memory of a crucial American patriot, fall on the spectrum?

3. Was George Mason University obligated to accept 30,000,000 dollars under these conditions? Should money supersede all other considerations for an educational institution? No, and no. Allowing the school to be turned into a billboard for conservative jurisprudence did more than simply alter the name. It altered the perception of the law school, the meaning of its degrees, its public image and its ability to attract a wide range of students from diverse backgrounds. If the school’s leadership didn’t comprehend that, it was a stunning example of institutional incompetence and irresponsible decision-making.

4. If the school’s leadership did comprehend the gravamen of the name change and allowing partisan tycoons to bend the school’s management to their will, then the decision was even less defensible. There was an absolute obligation to consult with the stakeholders in this trade-off: students, alumni, and donors. Failing that obligation constituted a stunning breach of trust. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Google Shows What’s Wrong With April Fooling”

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Extradimensional Cephalopod adds to the April Fool’s Day ethics lore on Ethics Alarms, commenting on the post about Google’s “Mic Drop” debacle.I especially like the three April Fool’s Day guidelines at the end.

Here is EC’s Comment of the Day on the post, Google Shows What’s Wrong With April Fooling: Continue reading

Google Shows What’s Wrong With April Fooling

Google-Fool

April Fool’s Day is essentially “Betray Someone Who Trusts You So You Can Mock Them” Day, and I have come to detest it. The internet has made the tradition less tolerable than ever, with web hoaxes multiplying the victims of “jokes” from individual friends and family members into thousands of strangers.

What is necessary to have an April Fool’s prank “work” is for someone to trust the prankster and ideally to not be especially aware of April Fool’s Day. I have a problem with the latter: imposing a tradition on someone who doesn’t embrace the tradition is unethical. The first part is also ethically troubling when the April Fooler is a person or entity who is obligated to be trustworthy. I would never host an April Fool’s gag on Ethics Alarms, and I have criticized other professionals who have carelessly used their professional blogs to indulge their juvenile senses of humor at the expense of others. No professional should be pulling tricks on clients or anyone who looks to them for facts, advice, experience or truth. That means April Fool’s Day is off limits to doctors, lawyers, journalists, elected officials, serious bloggers, accountants, law enforcement officials, teachers and priests in their official capacities, to name just a few. It also means that corporations should leave the faux holiday from honesty to individuals.

Nothing illustrates the latter principle better than the Google fiasco two days ago. I’ll let Google tell its own story: Continue reading

I Repeat: April Fools Day Is Not For Ethical Professionals

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In a much attacked post here way back in 2010, I offered some ethical guidelines for April Fool’s Day, which was just beginning to get out of hand. I was right, my critics were wrong, and maybe some of the mockers who are now trying to figure out when their favorite news organization is lying to them today for fun, as opposed to the rest of the year when it lies to them out of bias or incompetence, are beginning to appreciate my position.

I just watched three different morning news shows that contained fake news or commentary that the reporters and anchors, at least, seemed to think was hilarious. In one case, on Fox, conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham dead-panned a remarkably even-handed and fair explanation for HHS Secretary Sibelius’s much-maligned TV silence when asked about the Affordable Care Act’s unpopularity.  April Fool! Laura wasn’t being fair or objective, she was just tricking Fox’s audience into being angry at her for being fair and objective, or, in my case, admiring her integrity for pointing out that the incident had more than one plausible interpretation. Got me, Laura. I just heard an NPR host plead with the audience not to regard the upcoming segment as a hoax because of the date, an especially difficult plea since NPR springs virtual hoaxes on its audience all year.

The first and most important of my April Fools guidelines was this:

1. April Fools’ Day tricks are not for professionals to play on those who depend on them, trust them, or otherwise rely on them for information or services, unless there is a special relationship as well. The risks of harm and abuse are too great.

The succeeding four years have validated my position. Journalism, government and politics are the prime examples. CNN played a video that showed Jay Carney crowing yesterday about the Affordable Care Act’s success even as the Healthcare.gov website had crashed. Wait..is this a joke? Did the Obama White House film this for fun and games? They wouldn’t do this, you say? Government officials don’t use their high office for jokes and hoaxes? Really?

Sen. Ted Cruz, also on Fox, showed his new tattoo, apparently an April Fools’ joke, but also said he was certain that the Affordable Care Act would be repealed. Which is more likely, that the AFA will be repealed, or that wacky Ted Cruz would get a tattoo? Slate has a post up by someone called Rehan Salan, which is, clearly, a clever anagram for “En Anal Rash” or something, arguing that adults without children should be forced to pay extra taxes to support parents. Hah! Good one, Slate! That should turn the “pro choice” crowd on its head: lets; punish the choice not to have children via a penalty—I’m sorry, Chief Justice Roberts, a tax, wink-wink. Wait…that isn’t a joke? Ok, well, I’m sure about this, then: that fake video showing famous tough guy Don Baylor, a record holder for being hit by pitches when he played and now a coach for the Los Angeles Angels, “breaking his leg” catching the ceremonial first pitch of the baseball season. April Fools, right ESPN? No????

Continue reading

Another Day, Another Web Hoax: The Web Hoax Scale

Fake Wolf

That mad wag, Jimmy Kimmel, is doing another victory lap. This time, the biggest jerk on late night TV managed to fool news services, panic families of Olympian athletes and insult Russia (not that that bothers me very much) by his latest internet gag—convincing American luge athlete Kate Hanson to relay, via Twitter, his fake video of what appeared to be a wolf roaming the halls of the Olympic Village accommodations. Any collateral damage is irrelevant to Kimmel, because his objective is to cause trouble, then mock everyone who was fooled for allowing the trouble to be caused, since if they weren’t so dumb, trusting and gullible—it’s all their fault, not his, you see—nothing would have happened. (Yes, Kate Hansen is a jerk too.)

Here is what this relatively harmless (as opposed to harmless, which no web hoax is) misrepresentation accomplished:

  • It took up thousands of valuable minutes of news broadcasts throughout yesterday which could have been used productively to educate the public about all manner of things they actually need to know about—what’s happening to Justin Carter, for example—remember him? Maybe a well-produced segment on why a teen shouldn’t be facing terrorism charges for an obvious joke he made on Facebook could spark some much-needed public outrage. Instead, serious news broadcast time, a finite resource, was used to further a prank.
  • It made the media a party to a lie. It doesn’t matter about what. It’s a lie.
  • It wasted the time, thought and energy of every person who talked about the wolf, expressed concern about it or thought about it.
  • It further increased cynicism and doubt about news reports, feeding the tendency to adopt conspiracy theories and fear of sinister manipulation. How do we know the moon landing wasn’t a Jimmy Kimmel hoax?

Most of all, this will encourage other, bigger, more reckless asses than even Kimmel to go further and further with their web hoaxes, because such pranks mean viral videos and fame, no matter what harm they cause. Continue reading

Jackie Mitchell, The Girl Who Struck Out Ruth And Gehrig: A Legend And Ethics Conundrum

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The Jackie Mitchell saga is a great, feel-good story ruined by ethics rot. On one level, it is exactly the kind of tale that compels the treatment recommended by the old newspaper editor in John Ford’s “the Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” On another, it is an ethics mess, which might explain why I had never heard of Jackie Mitchell, once a proto-feminist icon, until I cracked open my new issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Mitchell was a Depression era Chattanooga teenager who had been taught how to pitch by her friend and neighbor, Major League ace Dazzy Vance. A star on local women’s baseball teams, the tomboy southpaw was signed to a pro contract by the promotion-minded owner of a local AA level minor league team, the Lookouts, in 1931. Her big moment came when the New York Yankees came through Chattanooga from Spring Training on the way to opening the season up North. Lookouts owner Joe Engel arranged for two exhibition games against the Bronx Bombers, who, you baseball fans should know, included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Engel promoted the game as a David and Goliath showdown with Jackie playing David, and he was rewarded with a full stadium. Then this happened: Continue reading

Apology: How I Became an April Fool and an Ethics Dunce

I’m not going to spin this. My conviction that the web hoax engineered by trial lawyer/blogger Eric Turkewitz violated the legal ethics rules was the product of a toxic mix of factors, prime among then being that I didn’t review my own files. When I finally, after nearly two days of answering complaints when I should have been hitting the books, checked the Rules of an ethics bellweather state that I often work in but had not for longer than usual, I read this:

RULE 8.4 Misconduct

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

…(c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation which reflects adversely on the
lawyer’s fitness to practice law;

This is an unusual version of Model Rule 8.4; indeed, the only other state to have adopted it (I think—I am no longer sure of much) is Wyoming. Yet it is a very useful variation of the Model Rule, because it eliminates all ambiguity about whether “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” is meant to be as sweeping as it sounds. This formulation makes it clear that non-legal practice violations are covered, but that they have to reflect adversely on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law to qualify.

I had been wallowing in obscure clues from other jurisdictions–Tennessee, for example, which has the ABA wording but an odd Comment that begins…

[4] Paragraph (c) prohibits lawyers from engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Such conduct reflects adversely on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law…

This could be taken to mean that all such conduct reflects adversely on fitness. The problem is, I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe that Tennessee means that.

The 8.4 version that I found was from…Virginia. Where I live. Where I have done more ethics CLE than anywhere else, beginning before the state even adopted the Model Rules format. Seeing this, two conclusions were unavoidable:

1. This is the predominant way jurisdictions think about 8.4. No state has rejected Virginia’s approach, and several have referenced it in Legal Ethics Opinions on the topic of what kind of non-legal practice-related conduct is covered by the Rules—-not subject to discipline, as I was arguing the past two days, but covered at all. The D.C. Bar has such an LEO, number 323, from 2004. I had a copy on file. The District of Columbia, where I’m a member of the bar.

2. I had made a big and inexcusable mistake, and compounded it by acting like the King of the Jerkwads. Continue reading