Georgetown Law Student Protesters Demand Ilya Shapiro Firing, Reparations, Place To Cry, End To “Originalist” Center
There seems to be a pre-existing unhappiness at Georgetown Law that erupted with Shapiro’s tweets the spark. “One student floated the idea of defunding the Center for the Constitution…. Another pressed Treanor on why the Center existed at all, given the originalist views of its director, Randy Barnett.“
Something is not right at Georgetown Law Center, and that something does not appear to be caused by Ilya Shapiro or his tweets. The more I look into this, the more there seems to be a pre-existing unhappiness at Georgetown Law that was ready to explode, and the tweets were the spark.
I covered the controversy yesterday, Profile In Cowardice: Georgetown Law Dean Bill Treanor Suspends Conservative Legal Scholar Ilya Shapiro. Please see that post for the background.
Spreading Pushback To Shapiro Suspension
Pushback came in a letter organized by The Foundation For Individual Rights In Education, signed (as of this writing) by 148 law faculty (including me):
Dear Dean Treanor:
We understand that some have called for Ilya Shapiro to be fired from his position as Executive Director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, because of his tweet criticizing President Biden’s pledge to appoint a black woman as a Justice. We think such a firing—or subjecting Shapiro to disciplinary action of any kind based on his tweet—would be contrary to basic academic freedom principles, which Georgetown rightly applies (1) to “all faculty,” including “lecturer[s]” such as Shapiro, and not just tenure-track faculty, and (2) to “professional service” and “all the domains of [faculty] academic activity,” which would include public commentary by public intellectuals, and not just “research” and “teaching.”
We agree that the reference in the tweet to “a lesser black woman” was a poor way of expressing the message (and Shapiro’s apology seems to agree as well). “[Sri Srinivasan] doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get [a less-qualified] black woman” is presumably what Shapiro meant to say. But setting aside that one mistake—which should not be seen as a fireable offense—the substance of the message, which is that Sri Srinivasan is the most qualified progressive nominee, and that it’s wrong for the President to pass him over because of race and sex, is a position that is most certainly protected by academic freedom principles of “[f]ree inquiry and unconstrained publication of the results of inquiry.”
To be sure, the substantive position about the President’s pledge, and about the relative qualifications of the various possible appointees, is not a position that all of us endorse. Indeed, some of us have publicly disagreed with it.
But academic freedom protects Shapiro’s views, regardless of whether we agree with them or not. And debate about the President’s nomination, and about whether race and sex play a proper role in such nominations more generally, would be impoverished—at Georgetown and elsewhere—if this view could not be safely expressed in universities. Indeed, to the extent that people do think it’s proper for a President to promise to fill a position with a member of a particular group, they can only have real confidence in that conclusion if they know that the contrary view can be freely supported and discussed, and has been found unpersuasive on the merits rather than silenced by fear of firing. That is famously the way academic discourse about science operates. And it is true for moral and political judgments as well.
More broadly, firing Shapiro for expressing his views will send a message to others in Georgetown—both faculty (and especially untenured faculty) and students—that debate about matters having to do with race and sex is no longer free; that the promises of academic freedom are empty; and that dissent from the majority views within the law school is not tolerated. That will chill far more than just honest discussions of this particular Presidential nomination.
Pushback also came from some unexpected leftist places, like Adam Serwer:
“I’ve made my feelings about what he said clear but it’s impossible for academic institutions to fulfill their missions if they fire or punish people under circumstances like these.”
And Jeet Heer:
“Shapiro’s comments were vile but well within the parameters of academic free speech. The university is betraying fundamental principles here.”
There also was support for Georgetown’s move, such as from attorney Alex Sanyshyn who made clear firing was what he wanted:
Yes, when I tag @GeorgetownLaw in tweets pointing out Ilya Shapiro’s long history of racism, sexism, and general bigotry, I am demanding that they fire him. Glad we cleared that up.
Georgetown adjunct law professor Joshua Matz, a private practice attorney who was impeachment counsel to Democrats in the case against Trump, tweeted his support for the Dean:
As an adjunct professor at @GeorgetownLaw, I strongly agree with Dean Treanor Ilya Shapiro’s statements were despicable, ignorant and racist Statements like this cause and perpetuate real harm—and are especially unforgivable from someone entrusted with the opportunity to teach
Protests And Sit-In Lead To More Demands
Today, law students staged a sit-in, as reported by Nate Hochman at National Review:
On the heels of a Georgetown Black Law Student Association petition calling for Shapiro’s termination, a message went out last night announcing that “a coalition of Georgetown Law Students will gather for a sit-in calling for the immediate termination of Ilya Shapiro and for the administration to address BLSA demands”:
Apart from the sit in, students met in an auditorium with Dean Bill Treanor. Hochman was denied entry, but caught the second half of the meeting on a live stream. The student demands revealed not just anger at Shapiro, but also hostility to an “originalist” institute even being on campus (emphasis added):
According to Hochman, students reiterated some of their demands and added others, such as “reparations” for students and a designated place to cry (emphasis added):
A chastened-looking Treanor spent more than an hour answering questions from what appeared to be the BLSA leadership team in a closed auditorium. The dean, striking an apologetic tone, echoed the language of the activists in the crowd, assuring the assembled students that he was “appalled” by the “painful” nature of Shapiro’s tweets and promising to “listen,” “learn” and ultimately “do better.” But he also seemed to be attempting to appease the students without committing to any definitive disciplinary action for Shapiro. “Since we’re a private institution, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to us,” he said. “It’s not the First Amendment that’s the university’s guideline.” But “on the other hand, the university does have a free speech and expression policy which binds us.”
The crowd was skeptical, directly criticizing Treanor’s messaging as “dishonest” and pushing for more aggressive action against Shapiro. One student floated the idea of defunding the Center for the Constitution “if, worst-case scenario,” Shapiro “were allowed to remain,” suggesting that Shapiro’s tweets can’t “be divorced” from the Center: “If Shapiro is there, then his ideas and his rhetoric will be the Center,” she insisted. Another pressed Treanor on why the Center existed at all, given the originalist views of its director, Randy Barnett. “Why was it created?” she asked. “Because so far it seems like it has done more harm than good.”
“You can do as much diversity training as you want with staff,” she continued. “But I feel like that Center has a certain ideology . . . so I really want you to defend why we really need it, beyond, like, you know, free speech, and beyond diversity of opinion. I really want us to think critically about why we still need it.”
Treanor said he thinks the Center is “important,” but quickly added that he wanted to “draw a line between conservatism and things that are racist.”
At another juncture, a student demanded that the dean cover for the classes that the activists had missed as a result of the sit-in, suggesting that the move should be part of a “reparations” package for black students. She followed up by insisting that students be given a designated place on campus to cry. “Is there an office they can go to?” she asked. “I don’t know what it would look like, but if they want to cry, if they need to break down, where can they go? Because we’re at a point where students are coming out of class to go to the bathroom to cry.”
“And this is not in the future,” she added. “This is today.”
The administrators took the law student’s query seriously. “It is really, really hard to walk out of class or a meeting in tears, and you should always have a place on campus where you can go,” Dean Bailin told her. “And if you’re finding that you’re not getting the person that you want to talk to or not getting the space that you need, reach out to me anytime — anytime — and we will find you space.”
Hochman separately tweeted some of the dialogue, with video back up:
“Coming back to this reparations thing…I don’t know if it’s a couple dinners or lunches or what, but that would help us,” one activist says.
“We have food on the way,” the dean assures her.
“Oh good, okay,” she says.
Mitch Bailin, GULC's dean of students, in response to the “where can we cry” query: “It is really hard to walk out of class or a meeting in tears, and you should always have a place on campus where you can go…reach out to me anytime—anytime—and we will find you space.” https://t.co/pxiyvpIkq4 pic.twitter.com/KquNfF2Dlf
— Nate Hochman (@njhochman) February 1, 2022
Aaron Sibarium at the Free Beacon further reports (emphasis added):
“Students are going to the bathroom to cry because they are scared,” one student told William Treanor, the dean of the law school. When another student said, “We have food on the way,” Treanor responded: “We will reimburse you for that.”
The exchange captures the tone of the sit-in, with Treanor and other administrators taking a largely deferential tone toward the demonstrators. “These comments are really helpful,” Treanor said at one point, assuring students he was “appalled” by Shapiro’s tweet. “For this to be at the start of Black History Month is particularly painful. I know what a terrible burden it is, and I’m grateful for you taking the time to talk.”
Several demonstrators also mentioned an incident involving former Georgetown Law professor Sandra Sellers, who was caught on tape saying that black students tend to cluster at the bottom of their classes. “That took me away from being able to focus for a month,” a student said. “And that was during Black History Month too.”
To mark the occasion this year, one demonstrator suggested the administration send an email to “remind” white students that “they are only here because our ancestors” were enslaved. “This is something that these people need to be reminded of,” the student said.
Pre-Existing Problems At Georgetown Law
Looking at the complaints of students, it’s pretty clear that there was serious pre-existing unhappiness at Georgetown Law. Whether that unhappiness was widespread, or just among the people now complaining, I can’t tell. Ilya Shapiro didn’t cause the problems, but his tweets seemed to have provided a spark.
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