Dees-graceful: proposing a new orthodoxy at GW Law

by Walter Olson on March 28, 2012

Updated twice: According to college paper Nota Bene, the student bar association Senate at George Washington University is asking the law school to consider a proposed policy which would attach substantial new restrictions to student decisions to invite speakers from “hate groups” to campus. (More: GW Patriot; a list of the asked-for restrictions, which include hiring security personnel at the expense of the inviting group and making “this is a hate group speaker” pre-announcements to audiences, is here; Nota Bene reports that the demand will not be considered this semester, and other sources say NB coverage has overstated how far the proposal managed to get). Making matters especially problematic, the blacklist would consist of groups designated as “hate groups” by Morris Dees’s Southern Poverty Law Center [SPLC] or the Anti-Defamation League.

Dees, long a deeply controversial public figure and polemicist, has been roundly criticized in recent years for expanding his list of “hate” and “extremist” groups, sent to law enforcement groups across the country, far beyond violent and criminal groups to include organizations and websites that advocate various (typically conservative) causes in a vehement and unpleasant manner, and thus offend liberal SPLC donors (and typically offend me as well). This year SPLC came in for widespread derision when it added a new category in its hate group report for “pickup artist” blogs, a target of feminist ire.

The demands for a policy change at GW were apparently triggered by an appearance on campus by the anti-gay Family Research Council, a spinoff of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family group. I have about as low an opinion of the FRC as it’s possible to have, but it’s not exactly to be confused with the Aryan Nations — major Republican politicians are willing to appear at its events, for example — and if you’re a student at a law school, it’s probably not a bad idea to be made aware that there are people out there with a wide range of views on the controversies of the day.

When I speak to audiences about the ideological law school atmosphere described in Schools for Misrule, I’m sometimes asked whether the pressures for conformity and silence are getting worse. Usually I argue the reverse, that law schools have tended to become more open in recent years to a broad spectrum of debate. If the advocates pushing the GWU initiative manage to get their proposal taken seriously by the law faculty, I may need to revise my thinking. [Updated 3/28 to reflect subsequent NotaBene report and questioning of its coverage; h/t Peter Bonilla, FIRE]

{ 7 comments }

1 Gideon 03.28.12 at 8:46 pm

What happens when either the SPLC or the ADL lists the other as a “hate group?”

2 John Burgess 03.28.12 at 9:28 pm

Let’s also throw in (together, please) AIPAC and CAIR.

3 Walter Olson 03.28.12 at 9:44 pm

The student paper’s initial reporting on this may have seriously overstated how far the proposal managed to get, which is why I’ve rewritten the post. According to a source on the GW law faculty, it is a proposal from students, endorsed by the student bar association senate, which (contrary to the first NotaBene report) has received no consideration, let alone imminent approval, from the faculty.

4 Orin Kerr 03.28.12 at 10:52 pm

Just to add to what Walter says, the GW Law faculty has never been told that there is a policy under consideration. I first learned about the story a day or two ago when a concerned student sent me the link to the Nota Bene story. At the time, I asked a few colleagues about it, and they had never heard of this, either. Moreover, the Friday faculty meeting was canceled for lack of business, so I don’t think there was ever a plan to have the faculty consider this at a Friday meeting.

To put it bluntly, I have no idea how this came to be reported as something the GW Law Faculty is considering. But as a GW Law faculty member, I can say that to my knowledge that report is simply false.

5 Walter Olson 03.28.12 at 11:32 pm

Thanks. One of my thoughts when I read the student-paper report was, “I can’t believe Orin Kerr, Jeff Rosen, and a half dozen others on the faculty wouldn’t be able to swat this down with one hand.” I hope you never even have to try.

6 Bill Alexander 03.29.12 at 12:49 am

It probably is up for consideration on the first of April.

7 Anonymous Attorney 03.29.12 at 12:43 pm

Yet another problem with the ascendance of the SPLC to quasi-governmental status: its determinations become “law” in the minds of many, as reliable as the NOAA’s records on precipitation levels or something. “Your honor, I ask for a judicial finding that this is a ‘hate speaker’, because he’s listed by the SPLC.” Obviously, the comparison doesn’t work.

I’m not surprised the GW proposal surfaced. When I was in law school, flyers for a fledgling Federalist Society were scrawled with swastikas or torn down.

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