Thursday, October 11, 2018

Should Brett Kavanaugh be stopped from teaching at Harvard Law School?

Now that Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has been confirmed, many law students are demanding that he be punished by ending his teaching career at Harvard Law School.

This effort reminds me of the time when I was a student in Brooklyn College in the 1950s, witnessing professors who were fired because it was suspected they might have been Communists years earlier. It didn’t matter whether they were innocent or guilty. Being suspected was enough to make them unsuitable to teach students, especially if they had pleaded the Fifth Amendment or angrily condemned the Un-American Activities Committees of Congress.

Now, flash forward 65 years as Harvard Law students and some faculty demand that Kavanaugh, who had taught with distinction since 2008, no longer be allowed to do what he loves and what many students loved. When Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, Harvard Law School was exuberant in its praise of his teaching. Dean John Manning thanked Kavanaugh for his “superb teaching” and “generosity, dedication, and collegiality he has shown our community.” A group of more than 80 former students sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, attesting that “[we] may have differing views on political issues surrounding the confirmation process, but we all agree on one thing: Judge Kavanaugh is a rigorous thinker, a devoted teacher, and a gracious person.”

After the accusations of sexual assault emerged, “hundreds of Harvard Law Students walked out of class . . . to protest Kavanaugh” demanding that he be barred from teaching, according to The Crimson. It also reported that students at a viewing party of the Kavanaugh testimony “applauded” and “burst out in cheers when Kavanaugh lamented the fact that these allegations may prevent him from teaching again. Harvard Law School has announced that Kavanaugh would not teach in winter term 2019. Although Harvard claims that it was Kavanaugh who decided, before he was confirmed, not to teach next semester, there can be little doubt that whoever made the decision, it was influenced by the student demands that he not be allowed to continue teaching.
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To be sure, Kavanaugh would not have been my nominee of choice, since I am a liberal Democrat who strongly believes that Merrick Garland was improperly denied his seat on the court. Nor do I have any idea about whether I would have enjoyed his course were I a student. These issues are beside the point.

Despite his lack of tenure, there is a long tradition at Harvard Law School to encourage judges to continue to teach in the winter term, if they satisfy the general academic criteria and receive excellent student evaluations. I do not know Kavanaugh, though I encountered him once or twice in the faculty lunchroom. This is not so much about Kavanaugh as it is about a new form of McCarthyism that is quickly descending on university campuses and spreading throughout the country.

Nor has this successful effort to end Kavanaugh’s teaching career based on neutral or objective standards that are equally applicable to all suspected serious crimes, regardless of the political or ideological backgrounds of the teacher.

Recall that former terrorists, some of whom were convicted of causing or intending the deaths of innocent people, are now teaching at several American universities. Consider the cases of former Weather Underground members Kathy Boudin and Bill Ayers. Boudin was convicted of complicity in the murder of police officers, served her term, and is now a member of the faculty and co-director of the Center for Justice at Columbia University. Ayers, who has boasted of his past association with terrorism, recently retired from a faculty position at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

I am aware of no efforts to deny them their teaching positions. Had Boudin been a left-wing male who had completed a prison term for sexual assault, I’m certain that many of the same students who now oppose Kavanaugh teaching at Harvard Law Scool would be demanding the right to take a course from the convicted terrorist.

Is what Kavanaugh been accused of — whether truthfully or falsely — really worse than participating in the murder of innocent people? How can this double standard be tolerated by thoughtful students and faculty members? Do we really want to distinguish between alleged crimes committed by people of the left and people of the right?

Before a teacher is terminated on grounds such as those at issue in the Kavanaugh case, neutral and objective standards equally applicable to all must first be established. There cannot be ad hoc decisions based on mob-rule and political correctness demands of the day. These standards have not been met in the Kavanaugh case. He should be invited to continue to teach. I would understand if he declined the offer, but fairness demand it should be his decision to make. Students should, of course, have the right to refuse to attend his class for any reason or no reason, but as long as there are students, no matter how few, who wish to learn from him, they should be accorded the opportunity to do so, regardless of other students might think.


UK: Identity politics is killing off healthy debate

Universities are on the front line in a culture war that stifles disagreement and is threatening liberal democracy

It is a year since the Eurosceptic Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris, then a government whip, wrote to universities requesting a list of the names of professors involved in the teaching of European affairs “with particular reference to Brexit”, together with copies of each syllabus and links to the course. He was accused of a “McCarthyite” attempt to undermine academic freedom with his “sinister” demand for information, which was sent out on House of Commons headed notepaper.

Lord Patten of Barnes, chancellor of Oxford University and former Tory chairman, described it as “offensive and idiotic Leninism”. David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, condemned the letter as “the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak”.

Mr Heaton-Harris has since been promoted to minister in the Department for Exiting the EU. Many of the universities complied with his request — of the 59 institutions that responded to his letter, 28 provided him with most or all of what he asked for. But now Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, has made a significant ruling warning that disclosing discussions about Europe could harm academic independence and undermine rigorous debate.

In response to a freedom of information request following Mr Heaton-Harris’ letter, she concluded that the vice-chancellor of Worcester was right to refuse to release emails containing the word “Brexit”.

“If the university is required to put this information into the public domain,” the ruling states, “the commissioner agrees that those views would be likely to be much more cautious and risk averse in the future and those concerned would be inhibited from providing a free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.”

Professor Green sees it as a landmark judgment. There was “a clear attempt to misuse the law for coercive and illiberal purposes,” he says. “This is a real victory in protecting academic freedom and the basic human right to engage in open debate and not surrender to sinister attempts to chill discussion and to bully.” Having grown up in 1950s America, with a father who was a scientist in the Air Force Research Laboratory at MIT when McCarthy demanded a list of “reds”, he is acutely aware of attempts at political interference. “There’s a new form of McCarthyism,” he told me. “The language is all about ‘a war’ and ‘the enemy’ as opposed to fellow citizens having a rational debate. Wherever it comes from on the political spectrum it’s to be opposed.”

As politics turns into a culture war, universities are finding themselves on the front line, under fire from left and right. On one side, academics are accused of pro-European bias, on the other they are criticised over their attitudes to gender and race. Trevor Phillips, the former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said at the weekend that the hounding of Nigel Biggar, the Oxford University professor who suggested there were some good elements to the British Empire, showed a worrying slide towards “Stalinism”. The feminist writer Germaine Greer and the veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell have both been “no-platformed” by student groups over their supposedly “transphobic” views.

One researcher, James Caspian, was refused permission to study cases of people who have surgery to reverse gender reassignment because his university thought the thesis could be “politically incorrect”. Angelos Sofocleous, a philosophy undergraduate, was sacked by his student newspaper after retweeting a comment that “women don’t have penises” — an opinion that his critics said could “belittle trans experiences”.

Perhaps not surprisingly there has also been a rise in “silent seminars”, where students refuse to express an opinion on controversial issues for fear of causing offence. Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at Kent University, says young people are self-censoring because, unable to differentiate between critiquing an argument and criticising a person, they believe that disagreeing with someone may be a “cultural crime”.

Instead of encouraging diversity of thought, the education system seems to be narrowing the scope of acceptable opinions. At the Tory conference in Birmingham last week, a secondary school teacher told a fringe meeting that she did not dare to admit she was a Conservative at work because the staffroom had become a “socialist convention”. One minister says: “Left-wing identity politics has provoked right-wing identity politics. There’s an unhealthy situation where both sides feel that people can only speak from the silos into which they’ve been put in the culture war. It’s about facts rather than emotion and it’s narrowing the scope within which you can have a proper free exchange of ideas.”

The phenomenon has also infiltrated the arts world. The novelist Rose Tremain says it is increasingly difficult for authors to write from their imaginations: she is convinced that the BBC recently turned down a television series based on The Road Home, her award-winning novel about immigration, because she is not a young Polish man, so her text cannot be “authentic”. If writers can only draw on personal experience, then literature will become narcissistic and narrowly focused, she says.

The bitter row over the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice in the US is symptomatic of a wider trend on both sides of the Atlantic. Politics is about whose side you are on rather than what you believe. The liberal protests against his confirmation following allegations of sexual assault were mirrored by a surge of support for the Republicans among conservative voters ahead of the midterm elections, in what Donald Trump’s allies are already calling the Brett bounce.

From Trump to Brexit, Scottish independence to climate change, politics is increasingly polarised along identity rather than partisan lines. Margaret Thatcher used to talk of cabinet ministers approvingly as “one of us” and now social media divides everyone into tribes. Virtue-signalling to friends is combined with vicious denunciations of enemies. The language of “mutineers” and “saboteurs” on the right is matched by attacks on “traitors” and “melts” on the left. MPs who refuse to conform face deselection or even death threats. There is a lack of civility that derives from the fact that people are playing the man (or woman) and not the ball.

If politics is no longer about persuasion but personal identity, then it is much harder for anyone to change their mind. But a liberal democracy depends on rational debate rather than emotional allegiance. It is based on constantly questioning, challenging and testing ideas. The “will of the people” should be an expression of these freedoms, not an excuse to divide and rule.


Rosemount educator resigns after 'kill Kavanaugh' tweet

A Rosemount special education teacher has been placed on paid administrative leave after posting a tweet Saturday that appeared to call for the killing of new U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The teacher, listed as an instructor at the Intermediate School District 917’s Alliance Education Center, has since deleted her Twitter account but her tweet was captured and shared by scores of users who said they reported it to the FBI and U.S. Secret Service.

A spokesman for the FBI in Minneapolis said Monday that the bureau was aware of the tweet, which read: “So whose [sic] gonna take one for the team and kill Kavanaugh?”

The Star Tribune is not naming the teacher because she has not been charged with a crime. In a statement on the district’s website Monday morning, ISD 917 Superintendent Mark Zuzek confirmed the district received a complaint about an employee over the weekend and placed the employee on paid administrative leave “pending the outcome of the investigation.”

“Pursuant with the data practices act, we are limited to providing additional information regarding this matter,” Zuzek’s statement concluded.

Also Monday, the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that it was aware of the alleged tweet but neither the office nor Rosemount police were “currently investigating any incidents we believe to have happened at the school.”

Calls to a phone number listed for the teacher were not immediately returned. The tweet was published hours after Kavanaugh was sworn in after a bitter weekslong fight over his nomination, mired by allegations of sexual harassment and a contentious confirmation hearing.

It is unclear whether the teacher will be charged with a crime or what law enforcement agency is responsible for investigating the tweet. While Twitter users wrote that they reported the tweet to the FBI and Secret Service, the U.S. Marshals Service is responsible for protecting the federal judiciary. The U.S. Supreme Court also has a small federal police force in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota has prosecuted at least two people in recent years for making threats against federal district court judges in the state. Last month, jurors convicted former Hopkins mayoral candidate Robert Philip Ivers with threatening to kill a federal judge overseeing a civil suit he brought. Meanwhile, Khaalid Abdulkadir is serving a term of probation after tweeting death threats against a federal judge and agents in 2015.


Australian PM plays down changing gay student laws

A long-awaited review into religious freedoms in Australia does not recommend any changes to the basis on which faith-based schools can reject students or teachers, the attorney-general has confirmed.

Some states - but not all - already allow schools to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or relationship status.

Commonwealth laws also contain some provisions to permit faith-based schools to exercise this discretion.

A Fairfax Media report suggested a religious freedoms review recommended the right be enshrined in the federal Sex Discrimination Act to ensure a consistent national approach.

The review's panel, chaired by former Liberal minister Phillip Ruddock, said it accepted the right of schools to select or preference students who uphold their religious convictions.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison played down the proposal on Wednesday, saying such exemptions to anti-discrimination laws already exist.

"We're not proposing to change that law to take away that existing arrangement," he told reporters on the NSW Central Coast.

Attorney-General Christian Porter later clarified that no changes to the current arrangement, created by Labor in 2013, are proposed in the report. "The Ruddock report does not recommend any changes to this regime," Mr Porter said.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said he can't believe the prime minister hasn't ruled out the "silly" idea completely. "The fact is every child is entitled to human dignity. We shouldn't even be having this debate," Mr Shorten told reporters in Melbourne, demanding the government release the report.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Labor's concerns about discrimination against children were jumping the gun, insisting the government would "get the balance right" and leave existing laws untouched.

But Special Minister of State Alex Hawke strongly supports the proposal, saying it is up to individual Christian schools to negotiate their handling of gay students. "I don't think it's controversial in Australia that people expect religious schools to teach the practice of their faith and their religion," he told Sky News.

Fellow Liberal MP Tim Wilson said he wouldn't be supporting any new laws that would broaden grounds for discrimination, and does not think the coalition would either.

The Ruddock review was commissioned after the 2017 national same-sex marriage vote and handed to the government several months ago, but is yet to be released.

Gay rights activists have slammed the proposal as a shameful assault on equality. Alex Greenwich, who co-chaired the national campaign in support of same-sex marriage, is demanding the federal government rule it out.

The panel reportedly did not accept that businesses should be allowed to refuse services on religious grounds, such as denying a gay couple a wedding cake.

The review also found civil celebrants should not be entitled to refuse to conduct same-sex weddings if they became celebrants after it was was legalised, Fairfax Media reported.


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