30 September 2015

A few thoughts on the law school's absurd and bizarre reaction to an offensive word

Recently, a law student from the University of Maryland made a Facebook post that included an allegedly offensive word. At some point the student realized the post might be offensive. She took it down and apologized.

At some point (whether before or after the apology is unclear), the administration of the law school became aware of the post and the Dean sent the following email:
Dear Members of the Community: 
It has come to my attention that a racially offensive term appeared on one of our student’s Facebook page. Among the features that most attracted me to this law school was the community’s longstanding commitment to diversity and to the highest levels of professionalism as part of its core values. https://www.umaryland.edu/about-umb/strategic-plan/about/core-values/.  Racially offensive remarks have no place in the discourse of those who aspire to become guardians of the legal profession. This student is now aware of the offending nature of the post, and is appropriately contrite. In consultation with members of the administration, the student is taking appropriate affirmative steps to convey apologies, and the student has recognized the gravity of the offense. 
Being a part of the profession of law is a great privilege, and it carries with it considerable responsibility. This includes sensitivity to the manner in which each of us comports himself or herself privately and in public. In addition, posts on social media remain there indefinitely and can continue to harm others. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of giving great thought to anything you intend to post, e-mail, or tweet. In the era of social media, this is part of professional responsibility. 
Donald B. Tobin
Dean and Professor of Law
The exact text of the post has not been made public, but the student apologized to the law school community in a mass email:
...I posted about my new access to Wi-Fi, flippantly mentioning an old neighbor and their inappropriate choice for a network name. I later realized how offensive it was, so I deleted it and posted an apology....
The offensive word this student used in her Facebook post was the WiFi network name of an old neighbor. According to this student, the context of her post was to point out that the network name was inappropriate. Maybe it wasn't smart for this student to use an offensive word in her Facebook post. In that case, the student's apology to her Facebook friends certainly seems like enough. A lecture by the Dean and a school-wide apology seems a bit much, no? Context matters here, doesn't it?!

Nonetheless, the Student Bar Association sent a follow-up email strongly condemning any use of "certain words, phrases, and symbols carry with them an abhorrent history of a violence, discrimination, and oppression...These words are INHERENTLY wrong, in and of themselves...." More: "these words...directly represent a system of unfathomable injustice whose dregs continue to linger in the lives of every single American." The SBA explains how we should be offended: "Terms categorically saturated with racial animus should offend each and every one of us." I suppose it's not appropriate for me to determine what's offensive to me.

We are in the age of the Offending of America, where every week comes a new thing to be outraged about. Even so, this situation is absurd and the reactions by the Dean and the Student Bar Association are bizarre. This reaction ignores the reality and context of the situation to push a heavy-handed message that, in my opinion, chills the discussion of anything that might be considered offensive. Steer clear of any words that might be offensive because your career depends on it. Got it.
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