The Corner

How to Teach ‘Distraught’ Leftist Law Students

There really is nothing new under the sun. 

The Ferguson traffic-jam protests are the romper-room version of the 1992 Rodney King riots. The Rolling Stone rape story was the junior-varsity version of the 1991 Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill confrontation — at least when it comes to public attention, not severity of allegations. And both events occurred during my first year at Harvard Law School, populated then (as now) by a critical mass of angry, self-righteous leftists. 

Yes, I’ve seen it all before — the demand to be relieved of academic obligations (exams now, classroom attendance then) and the demand to either not teach sexual assault at all or to teach it only from particular feminist perspectives. So I enjoyed a particular sense of déjà vu when I read Harvard Law Student William Desmond’s op-ed justifying student petitions to delay exams and read Harvard professor Jeannie Suk’s accounts of requests not to teach the law of rape.

Then, as now, the dynamics are rather simple.

The demands for delayed exams and canceled classes are not so much cries from the heart as they are attempted exercises in raw power. I remember laughing out loud in torts class when students stood up and demanded that class be adjourned so they could engage in “direct action.” I’d just watched them take a long, leisurely lunch where they’d talked about anything but South Central L.A. But I suppose the ideal time for “direct action” was Tuesdays and Thursday at 2:00 p.m. By standing and asserting themselves, these activists weren’t so much attempting to advance social justice as they were attempting to advance their own social standing, rendering themselves a force to be reckoned with on campus. They knew the language of pain and outrage was the language of power at Harvard, and they spoke it fluently. That’s not to say that these students didn’t believe in the cause, or that they didn’t spend some time working to advance it, but it was plain that they really believed the cause was best advanced with themselves in the vanguard.

The demands not to teach rape — or to teach it only from one perspective — often came from the same space. I don’t know of a single teacher heartless enough not to excuse a true victim of sexual violence from a class session that might re-open horrific wounds. But the shrieking arguments I heard were about power, not compassion. Claims of potential suffering were fundamentally pretextual, the true agenda was shaping ideologies and dictating terms. 

I recall one exchange, when in-class leftist protests reached a crescendo, that ultimately did more than anything else to end the controversy. The professor — a man with unimpeachable lefty street cred — responded to a demand for a canceled class with the following statement, “I shall cancel class when you can show me legal precedent for the notion that a lawyer may delay court proceedings — delay the hearing of their own client’s case — simply because the lawyer believes his or her time is better spent at a protest. Find me that precedent, and we’ll have no class. In the absence of such precedent, class shall carry on.”

Classes continued.

Here’s my message to the self-proclaimed courageous leftists of today (Yes, Mr. Desmond actually claims he’s showing courage. I could introduce him to some peers who have a different definition of that term): We know your game. I suspect you likely truly believe in the cause, but we also know you truly believe in you, and this is one way you punch your ticket. 

And knowing your game, be assured that while you gained some notoriety, some of us will take you less seriously in the future. There are serious and tough-minded leftists out there. I know and respect several. But you’re not in their number, not even close.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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