Dean Trevor Morrison Speaks Out About Anti-Semitism Controversy At NYU Law
And he’s probably counting down the days until the end of his deanship.
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Last week, I covered a controversy at NYU Law School over allegedly anti-Semitic messages that went out over the law school listserv. The controversy has raged on since then, with more messages and more vitriol. Here’s a quick update for those of you who are interested (or maybe I should say really interested, since this post is admittedly “inside baseball”).
On Tuesday, a group of self-identified Jewish anti-Zionist students sent an open letter to Dean Trevor Morrison (just as their ideological opponents sent an open letter to Dean Morrison last week). In their letter, the anti-Zionist students expressed their “strong disagreement with the Jewish Law Student Association’s (JLSA) suggestion that all Jews feel unsafe on NYU Law’s campus as a result of political speech by other students”; declared that they “are deeply troubled that JLSA and others have condoned the targeting of anti-Zionist students and the calls for academic sanctions against them”; and argued anti-Zionism is not the same thing as anti-Semitism, since “criticism of the state of Israel is not anti-semitic, but rather, is a Jewish mandate.”
On Wednesday, Dean Morrison sent out another school-wide email, this one longer and more substantive than his message from last week. Here it is, in its entirety:
Over the course of the last week, I and others in the Law School administration have continued to hear from students who are disturbed by aspects of the recent Coases [listerv] thread on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Dean [of Students Lindsay] Kendrick and I have met with and heard from numerous members of our community on this issue, who have expressed a range of concerns that we take seriously. We have also received complaints that aspects of the thread involve expressions of antisemitism that violate the University's Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy. The Law School has a process for handling complaints of this sort, and we will follow that process.
Whatever the outcome of that investigation, I can say that the Coases thread in question worries me greatly. First, although the Law School does not take general institutional positions on matters of broad public concern like the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is perfectly in keeping with that stance for the Law School to condemn unequivocally, as we did last week, the intentional killing of unarmed civilians. From the standpoint of international law (which matters at a law school like ours), it has long been clear that intentionally targeting unarmed civilians for the use of deadly violence is wholly impermissible. Certainly, civilians killed in such ways are not to blame for their own deaths. Second, parts of the Coases thread include phrases like “Zionist grip on the media” that parallel very closely hateful, antisemitic tropes about the supposed Jewish influence on the media. Although complaints about the use of those phrases are still being investigated under NYU’s non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy, President [Andrew] Hamilton has already made it clear that he finds them very troubling. I share that view. Whatever the intent of those who used those words, I am concerned about their potentially harmful effect on some Jewish members of our community.
Moreover, wholly apart from NYU’s non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy, NYU has a Student Conduct Policy that applies to all students. That policy makes clear that, as members of a common educational community, we owe to one another duties that, in some respects, go beyond what we owe to the public at large. In particular, we are obliged to refrain from saying or doing things to other members of this community that entail “threatening, tormenting, mocking, intimidating, maliciously or inappropriately ridiculing another’s work or comments beyond the scope of scholarly inquiry.” Put more simply, NYU requires us to treat fellow members of this community with respect.
In both tone and substance, the Coases thread at the heart of this controversy did not consistently live up to that standard. Similarly, we have heard from students who expressed support for the Law Students for Justice in Palestine statement that they are now being targeted in emails, group chats, letters, and social media in ways that also threaten to violate that standard. As I have said before, vigorous debate, disagreement, and dissent is vital to a university community, and should not be discouraged. But within the NYU community, such debate can—indeed, must—be conducted in ways that demonstrate mutual respect, and that affirm that we all deserve to feel safe as fully fledged members of this community. As this school year draws to a close, I urge all of us to think about how we can do better on this front.
Part of doing better is striving to find effective and respectful ways to have difficult, even painful conversations with those with whom we disagree. In the last week and a half, we have heard from many of you hoping that the Law School might provide additional opportunities for community-building programming of this sort. As a starting point, we plan to host before the May exam period a set of conversations focused on tools for having difficult conversations within our community. Following the exam period, we plan to offer additional programming on antisemitism, bias, and discriminatory speech. At this time, we invite students and student groups interested in participating to reach out to the Office of Student Affairs at [x].
Finally, it must be acknowledged that the Coases listserv may itself be part of the problem here. In the final weeks of the semester, now is not the time to make changes to Coases. But over the summer, the administration may well choose to consider alternative communications platforms with different functionalities. In the meantime, I would urge that the use of Coases be limited to the kinds of simple informational exchanges for which it was initially intended.
I wish everyone a successful close to the semester.
Trevor W. Morrison
Eric M. and Laurie B. Roth Professor of Law
New York University School of Law
Two quick thoughts from me:
Hosting conversations “focused on tools for having difficult conversations within our community” sounds like a great idea—and one that many other law schools (cough cough, Yale) could benefit from right now.
Near the end of his email, Dean Morrison raises a valid question: are law school listservs the devil’s playthings? Many law school controversies have started on (or have been fueled by) listservs and similar modes of school- or class-wide communication. Communication and technology are generally positives, in my view—but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. If controversies like those at NYU and Yale Law cause law school administrators and students to think more carefully about how to communicate with each other, then maybe they’ll have served a useful purpose.
How did NYU law students react to the dean’s message? Several of them forwarded Dean Morrison’s message to me, and a few shared their views with me.
One student opined that the strong statements of Dean Morrison and President Hamilton could reflect the desire of the NYU administration to stay out of trouble with the federal government. As Aaron Sibarium of the Washington Free Beacon noted last week, NYU has had issues with anti-Semitism before, and in 2020 it entered into a settlement with the U.S. Department of Education that requires NYU to “take all necessary actions, including pursuant to its student discipline process,” to address anti-Semitism on campus.
Another student responded to concerns that treating the expression of controversial political views as “harassment” might chill free speech:
As a student very conscious of the need for increased free speech in the law school environment, allowing the normalization of the rhetoric in these [anti-Zionist] emails and social media posts actually pushes a sizable portion of the Jewish community, and others, into the shadows, and leads to more self-censorship. A message like this from the Dean reiterates that our views are acceptable and should be safe to express in the academic square. It makes clear that students who publicly wish “death to Israel” on social media are not to be celebrated.
Students shouldn’t need to qualify that they aren’t expressing their own opinion when they are cold-called to defend an opinion issued by Justice Scalia, and they shouldn’t need to censor deeply held viewpoints about Israel either.
Back in October 2021, well before this controversy erupted, Dean Morrison announced that he would be stepping down as dean this June. I’m sure he won’t miss having to mediate disputes like this one.
Being a law school dean in the year 2022 is not an enviable job. To Dean Morrison’s unnamed successor, I wish you the best of luck.
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