Some freshman year law students wrote a letter to their professor, protesting the professor’s wearing of a ‘Black Lives Matter’ t-shirt to class once.
The letter called the t-shirt ‘highly offensive’ and ‘inappropriate’.
In and of itself, that is not a particularly remarkable story. Where this takes an absolutely delightful turn is when the professor decides to take it as an opportunity to do what she does best: give them some much needed schooling.
Here is the transcription of the letter from the students:
To: Patricia Leary
From: Concerned Students
We write this letter to you with concern about your inappropriate conduct at Whittier Law School.
Specifically, you have presented yourself on campus, on at least one occasion, wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt. We believe this is an inappropriate and unnecessary statement that has no legitimate place within our institution of higher learning. The statement you represented and endorsed is also highly offensive and extremely inflammatory. We are here to learn the law. We do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors.
Whittier Law School has prided itself on the diverse demographics represented within the student body. Your actions however, clearly represent your View that some of those demographics matter more than others. That alienates and isolates all non-black groups.
As someone who is charged to teach criminal law, it should be abundantly clear to you and beyond any question that ALL lives matter, as it is expressed unequivocally in the law. Furthermore, the “Black Lives Matter” statement is racist and anti-law enforcement and has been known to incite violence in this country. As someone who is paid to teach the law, you should be ashamed of yourself.
Your willingness to wear such an advertisement can only lead us to believe that you are completely ignorant of and uninformed about the social ramifications and implications surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. People who support that message have robbed, rioted and burned innocent businesses and attacked law abiding peace officers who were charged with protecting ALL the demographics you’ve succeeded in isolating.
While we can appreciate your sacred right to the freedom of speech, we would strongly urge you to seriously reconsider your actions. You should exercise a little bit of respect and restraint. This is not a political science class or college. We are a law school. We have undertaken the very solemn duty to learn and respect the law. We do not need the mindless actions of our professors to distract and alienate us.
Just as our personal beliefs have no place in law exams, your personal beliefs have no place in the classroom.
Whittier Law School is experiencing an unprecedented decline in bar passage rate. It is imperative that you utilize energy to actually teach law instead of continue to express hateful messages.
Unfortunately, we feel that we must deliver this message to you anonymously. It is clear that the opinions expressed within this letter are not welcome. If student body opinions go against the school or faculty we fear there will be retaliation. In fact, Whittier Law School administration and faculty, including you, have shown no shame in displaying appalling levels of discrimination.
We are hopeful the new administration will rectify these abysmal failings and shortcomings. There is a lot of work to be done to rectify situations such as these.
Professor Leary responded in a two-part masterpiece. Here is the transcription of her response:
Response to Concerned Students Memo
I am accepting the invitation in your memo, and the opportunity created by its content, to teach you. I would prefer to do it through a conversation, or especially through a series of conversations. Because I don’t know who you are. This isn’t possible. And there is an even more important reason for putting this in writing for the entire law school community. The larger issues that underlie your anger are timely, and they touch the entire law school community and transcend it.
This response to your memo is in two parts. Part I addresses the substantive and analytical lessons that can be learned from the memo. Part II addresses the lessons about writing that can be learned from the memo.
When your argument is based on a series of premises, you should be aware of them. You should also be aware that if any of these premises are factually flawed or illogical, or if the reader simply doesn’t accept them, your message will collapse from lack of support. Here is a short list of some of the premises in your memo, and my critique of them.
Premise: You have purchased, with your tuition dollars, the right to make demands upon the institution and the people in it and to dictate the content of your legal education.
Critique: I do not subscribe to the “consumer model” of legal education. As a consequence, I believe in your entitlement to assert your needs and desires even more strongly than you do. You would be just as entitled to express yourself to us if the law school were entirely tuition free This is because you are a student, not because you are a consumer. Besides, the natural and logical extension of your premise IS that students on a full scholarship are not entitled to assert their needs and desires to the same extent as other students (or maybe even at all). So, as you can see, arguments premised on consumerism are not likely to influence me. On the contrary, such a premise causes me to believe that you have a diminished view of legal education and the source of our responsibility as legal educators. This allows me to take any criticism from such a perspective less seriously than I otherwise would.
Premise: You are not paying for my opinion.
Critique: You are not paying me to pretend I don ‘t have one.
Premise: There is something called “Law” that is objective, fixed, and detached from and unaffected by the society in which it functions.
Critique: Law has no meaning or relevance outside of society. It both shapes and is shaped by the society in which it functions. Law is made by humans. It protects, controls, burdens, and liberates humans, non-human animals, nature, and inanimate physical objects. Like the humans who make it, Law is biased, noble, aspirational, short-sighted, flawed, messy, unclear, brilliant, and constantly changing. If you think that Law is merely a set of rules to be taught and learned, you are missing the beauty of Law and the point of law school.
Premise: You know more about legal education than I do.
Critique: You don ‘t.
Premise: There is an invisible “only” in front of the words “Black Lives Matter.”
Critique: There is a difference between focus and exclusion. If something matters, this does not imply that nothing else does. If l say “Law Students Matter” it does not imply that my colleagues, friends, and family do not. Here is something else that matters: context. The Black Lives Matter movement arose in a context of evidence that they don’t. When people are receiving messages from the culture in which they live that their lives are less important than other lives, it is a cruel distortion of reality to scold them for not being inclusive enough.
As applied specifically to the context in which I wore my Black Lives Matter shirt, I did this on a day in Criminal Procedure when we were explicitly discussing violence against the black community by police.
There are some implicit words that precede “Black Lives Matter,” and they go something like this:
Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular. It is important that we say that…
This is, of course, far too long to fit on a shirt.
Black Lives Matter is about focus, not exclusion. As a general matter, seeing the world and the people in it in mutually exclusive, either/or terms impedes your own thought processes. If you wish to bear that intellectual consequence of a constricting ideology, that’s your decision. But this does not entitle you to project your either/or ideology onto people who do not share it.
Premise: Saying “Black Lives Matter” is an expression of racist hatred of white people.
Critique: “Black Lives Matter” is not a statement about white people. It does not exclude white people. It does not accuse white people, unless you are a specific white person who perpetrates, endorses, or ignores violence against black people. If you are one of those people, then somebody had better be saying something to you. (I am using “you” here in the general sense as a substitute for “one,” and not as in “you memo writers.”)
Premise: History doesn ‘t matter. Therefore sequences of cause and effect can be ignored (or even inverted).
Critique: To assert that the Black Lives Matter movement is about violence against the police is to ignore (and invert) the causal reality that the movement arose as an effect of police violence. Yes, the movement is about violence, in that it is about the subject of violence, but it is not about violent retaliation against the violence that it is about. It is a tragic fact that rage as a consequence of racial injustice sometimes gets enacted as violence (although not nearly as often as we might expect. Given the longstanding causes of that rage). We can all lament the fact that violence begets violence. But we can ‘t even do that if we ignore the violence that has done, and is doing, the begetting.
Premise: What you think something means is the same as what it actually means.
Critique: We are all entitled to (and should make every effort to) discern meaning. There can be reasonable differences of opinion about what something means. Something can even carry a meaning that has a larger life of its own, regardless of the meaning ascribed to it by a particular person. For example, the flag of the Confederacy carries the meaning of white supremacy. Even if a particular person thinks it only means “tradition.” One person, or even a group of people, cannot take away the flag’s odious meaning just by declaring that it means something else. Similarly, ascribing a negative meaning where none exists does not bring that meaning into being.
Unless you speak for the Black Lives Matter movement you have no authority to say what those words mean to the people in it. You certainly have no authority to say (and apparently not even any knowledge of) what it means to me. Your interpretation of something and your reaction to it based on that interpretation are not the some as what something actually means. Things in the world have meanings that exist outside of you.
The point I am making here is different from the points above that address your misunderstanding of the movement and the three words that embody it. This is a point about aggrandizement, not accuracy.
Because a long time ago (in a law school far, faraway) I was a teacher of legal writing, and because I still care about it very much, I will make some points relevant to formal and persuasive writing.
When you are writing to someone who has a formal title (e.g., Doctor, Professor, Dean, Judge, Senator) you should address him or her using that title. To do otherwise appears either ignorant or disrespectful. Whether or not you actually have any respect for the person is completely irrelevant. I take that back. It might be more important to follow the formal writing conventions when you don’t respect the individual person. Otherwise, you are risking trading the credibility of your entire message for the momentary satisfaction derived from communicating your disdain.
When you embed a statement in a dependent clause, you are signaling to the reader that it is of lesser importance (e.g. “While we can appreciate your sacred right o the freedom of speech, …”). If this was intentional, it undermines your message. If it was not intentional, it obscures it.
Frame the issue precisely and then focus on it. Don’t overgeneralize. You begin by stating that the issue is my “inappropriate conduct,” which sounds very general. Then you narrow the issue to “specifically” one event that occurred on a particular day last semester. Your use of hyperbolic rhetoric throughout the memo suggests that you really are angry about more than just a T-shirt. If it really is about just the T-shirt, then by overgeneralizing from a specific occurrence, your message is swamped by exaggeration. If it really is about other “conduct” on my part, I can’t tell what that is. By the end of the memo you have lost focus completely, generalizing (in statements that are unexplained and inexplicable) about bar passage and about the faculty and administration of the entire law school.
Be as clear as you can about everything, including the remedy you are seeking. You are not required to want anything specific, but I can’t tell whether you do or not. Perhaps you are demanding that I simply cease and desist from wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt. If that is it, the demand could have been stated clearly. Instead, it is mired in the generalities and the threatening and overblown rhetoric that I referred to above.
DO NOT YELL AT THE READER. The power of your message should come from carefully chosen words that have been thoughtfully assembled, not from the size of your fonts. Capitalizing words does not make them more powerful. It just makes you look angry.
In conclusion, I believe that every moment in life (and certainly in the life of law school) can be an occasion for teaching and learning. Thank you for creating an opportunity for me to put this deeply held belief into practice.