March 17, 2007

"Distorted rumors" of a law school class.

Cap Times columnist Joel McNally restirs the pot on the UW Law School Kaplan controversy and quotes my NYT column from two weeks ago. He also evokes my column from the week before that -- read it in TimesSelect -- which speaks more generally about teaching law school and challenging law students beyond their comfort zone. I had just heard a talk given by "Paper Chase" author John Jay Osborn Jr., and I was using the book "The Paper Chase" and the character Professor Kingsfield to say something about what we lawprofs should be doing today.

McNally on Kingsfield:
Kingsfield was the fictional version of a real-life Harvard law professor who instilled such icy terror in the hearts of his students that one of them turned the experience into "The Paper Chase," a best-selling novel and popular film in the 1970s.
Actually, according to Osborn, Kingsfield wasn't a real professor. He was a fictional concoction, to provide drama. Osborn's own contracts professor was quite lovable.

Here's McNally on the Kaplan controversy:
... Madison law professor Leonard Kaplan... somehow finds himself having to defend a lecture that apparently unintentionally offended some Hmong students who may or may not know what was really said.

What prompted the uproar was an e-mail circulated by a Hmong student who wasn't in the class. The student later admitted her e-mail "wasn't well-informed," but that she still found whatever was said in the class offensive.

Other minority students, who actually did hear Kaplan's remarks in the class, said the e-mail took portions of Kaplan's lecture out of context. They said Kaplan had described racial stereotypes that had been used against Hmong people in a discussion of how the law can conflict with different cultures.

In a letter to the dean of the Law School, Kaplan said: "Had I made the hateful comments strongly attributed to me, I would repudiate them without hesitation. I did not make them."

But apparently it doesn't matter that the complaint against Kaplan "wasn't well-informed," as his accuser now says.

The Law School is scrambling. The university is scrambling. We hear the sort of vacuous apologies that have become familiar in recent years. If anyone was offended, all sorts of folks are officially deeply sorry. What's really offensive is a university that worries more about how students react to distorted rumors of what a professor might have said instead of what was really said or what he was trying to teach his students.
I think McNally has carefully phrased this, but do want to call attention to two things that might be a little hard to see. First, the concession that the email reporting supposed quotes "wasn't well-informed" doesn't mean that their complaint lacks substance. Second, the university has taken an interest in what really happened. While "distorted rumors" may have inflamed emotions, there are still real students who had sat through the class who are talking with administrators about what they had perceived.

There is no way to go back and see what happened in a situation that wasn't recorded. In a sense, you could say that anyone's report of what was said in the past is somehow "rumor," but that's not very helpful. Indeed, the students' first-hand reports of what they heard in class are not even hearsay in the legal sense of the term (because it is not offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted, only to prove what was said).

I'm not looking to restir the pot here myself, just linking to McNally because I've been linking to the mainstream media's coverage of this story all along. McNally is saying something very close to what I've been saying, which you can read by clicking the "Kaplan story" label below. There is a serious conflict and a lot of well-intentioned individuals attempting to resolve it right now. I wish them well.


Pogo said...

In my view, the only real mistake arose here when the administration granted a public ...well, not a hearing, really...spectacle. It turned a minor blip, a total non-issue, into an overwrought media event.

But of course, that's how this is supposed to work. Just a few more little the Chomskies manufacturing dissent.

TMink said...

A question from a legally challenged layman. If I get this, the students who did indeed attend the lecture were not reporting hearsay, they were reporting on the facts they witnessed.

The student who did NOT attend the lecture and complained via email etc, was spreading hearsay.

Did I get it?


Ann Althouse said...

Pogo: As I understand it, the students planned the public event and would have gone forward with it whether faculty participated in it or not. I don't think squelching their free speech was possible or appropriate. Perhaps it was wrong to participate in the event, but that is a far cry from planning it.

TMink: Yes, the email reporting the statements was hearsay.

Pogo said...

Re; "Perhaps it was wrong to participate in the event, but that is a far cry from planning it."

They were given university space as I recall; not just the usual megaphone sideshow stuff in the quad, but an auditorium. And the administration spoke in apology there, did it not?

A more adult approach would have been to refuse the use of a room and let them have a demonstration outside; most of these are ignored by the press (and everyone else). And then they should have spoken to these law students to remind them that their words matter, and if they are slandering, they will be held accountable, either by a lawsuit or by internal student conduct review.

The U's inability to show the least deference to their own staff while simultaneously promising investigation was beyond inept. If I were a teacher there, the message would seem pretty clear: staff will be thrown under the bus whenever the choice is between a student's hurt feelings (however formed), and faculty, tenured or not.

As law students, they should already be aware that actions have consequences, but the U is willing to let them pretend that the fictional campus world is safe and comforting, and that all of their fevered perceptions of affront warrant public apology, whether factual or fancied.

It's a shame. While I am certain these law students will make great advocates, they will likely be terrible lawyers. This is where attorneys like Lynne Stewart get their start.

Y.G. Brown said...

Ann, are you still planning to organize something within the community to address the issues brought forward by these events?

Ann Althouse said...

Y.G.: I never identified myself as the organizer. There are things other people are doing.

Y.G. Brown said...

This is a minor point, but you did in fact identify yourself as one who was organizing an event within the community to directly address the issues raised by L'affaire de Kaplan:

Ann Althouse said...

Y.G. Brown said..."Ann, have you either organized a forum on the subject of academic freedom at the law school or otherwise engaged your community directly on this subject?"

Actually, we are working on that now. Also, I consider this blog to be functioning right now as a forum on academic freedom. I will leave it to you to imagine how much my colleagues appreciate it.

But regardless of whether you are organizing such an event or not, are you still planning to participate in such an event? Are any specifics yet established?

Ann Althouse said...

Y.G.: "We" means the school, not that I am personally doing something. We have great clinics at my school. I have nothing to do with them. Get it?

Ann Althouse said...

There was an event yesterday that I heard went well.

Ann Althouse said...

Here's a link to a description of the event.