“Here at Harvard Law School, we are committed to preventing degradation of any individual or group, including race-based insensitivity or hostility,’’ [Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School] wrote in a message to Harvard’s law school community.(Via TaxProf, who collects a bunch of other links on the story, including links that will get you to the full text of the email.)
Minow said she had met with leaders of Harvard’s Black Law Students Association on Wednesday to discuss the hurt caused by Grace’s e-mail....
... Minow called the incident “sad and unfortunate’’ but said she was heartened by the student’s apology. She added: “We seek to encourage freedom of expression, but freedom of speech should be accompanied by responsibility.’’
Grace has apologized. Of course, she's sorry now. "I am heartbroken and devastated by the harm that has ensued. I would give anything to take it back." Note the passive voice: "the harm that ensued." A new way to say I'm sorry you were offended. She also says "I understand why my words expressing even a doubt [that African-Americans are genetically inferior] were and are offensive." She's learned something: This is a subject where you can't play with ideas and speculate. People get very angry, and the speaker had better be ready to deal with it.
Did Dean Minow handle this the right way? One question is: Why does the dean even get involved with something one student said in private email? If the answer is because the Black Law Students Association came to her and demanded a response, then maybe the question should be why did the Black Law Students Association go to the dean for help? Why didn't the students all just argue and debate and express themselves to each other? These are Harvard students. Law students. Why not dig in and have it out and show your stuff? Why go to the nearest, biggest authority figure? Stephanie hurt me!
Here's the full text of Minow's message. (By the way, Martha Minow's father was FCC chairman Newton Minow, the man who called television "a vast wasteland.")
This sad and unfortunate incident prompts both reflection and reassertion of important community principles and ideals. We seek to encourage freedom of expression, but freedom of speech should be accompanied by responsibility. This is a community dedicated to intellectual pursuit and social justice....Law school is a community with shared ideals. One of the ideals could be: When a student makes a point that contains what you think is an outrageous statement, unless she's been actively insulting to you, you should engage her in debate and not not expose her to a public trashing. And don't bring the dean into the fray as your champion. More from Minow:
As news of the email emerged yesterday, I met with leaders of our Black Law Students Association to discuss how to address the hurt that this has brought to this community. For BLSA, repercussions of the email have been compounded by false reports that BLSA made the email public and pressed the student’s future employer to rescind a job offer.I was going to say that "the hurt" to Grace and her reputation was much greater than the hurt to those students who only read the email. It's not as if she shouted ugly words in their face. But now I see that the BLSA students had reason to worry that they were the ones who would look bad because they were believed to have overreacted and taken some nasty revenge. Minow may have been activated by the need to clear their reputation.
A troubling event and its reverberations can offer an opportunity to increase awareness, and to foster dialogue and understanding.Minow tries to be even-handed and control the fallout. She frames it as a teaching moment. But what has everyone learned?