Scholarly Journals and Authors' Past Offensive Speech (2):

OK, now here's the other (equally accurate) version of the story.

2. The Yale Law Journal is embroiled in a controversy. The Journal accepted a paper for a symposium that was cowritten by Kiwi Camara. It turns out that four years, when Camara was a 17-year-old first-year Harvard Law School student, he posted something really offensive on a law school outline-exchange Web page: A couple of his outlines for classes (such as for property law, where one of the cases dealt with a restrictive covenant aimed at excluding blacks) referred to blacks as "nigs." This caused a furor, especially in combination with two other Harvard Law School incidents that year, which involved professors rather than students (and which Camara wasn't responsible for). Camara apologized, and said he didn't endorse racist ideas, but his apology was quite puzzling. (This Harvard Law Record story contains the fullest account of the incident that I've found.)

Camara then graduated (at age 19, apparently the youngest Harvard Law School graduate in the school's history), clerked for a federal court of appeals judge, and is now a research fellow at Stanford. After the Yale Law Journal controversy flared up, he wrote a further apology that seems quite straightforward and unambiguous. (I should note that the statement was circulated at Yale only on Monday, and many of those who have been calling for the offer of publication to be revoked hadn't seen this.)

Forget then about all the issues I discussed in part 1. Camara is obviously very smart, but even very book-smart 17-year-olds sometimes say really dumb things. It's hard for me to figure out exactly why he said what he said, but the charitable — and, I think, plausible — explanation is that he was engaging in the common 17-year-old pastime of trying to be edgy and shocking. Some kids do this by swearing, though this has lost its edge these days; Camara may have been trying to do it by casual use of epithets.

And charity, it seems to me, is appropriate here. Whatever Camara's reasons for what he did then, he was 17. How many of us didn't say anything at age 17 that we now realize was stupid, offensive, and quite possibly not even sincere? Yes, I realize that some things that kids do at 17 end up sticking with them; if you rape or rob someone, the rest of us need to protect ourselves against you (and the victim deserves some justice for this serious crime). Yet that's an occasion for regret, and something we should avoid if we can. And when it comes to simply offensive statements, it seems to me that the loud condemnation from classmates, professors, and administrators that Camara endured after the original incident was likely a pretty good way to teach him the requisite lesson. It's a fair bet that the lesson has been learned.

Camara has apologized. Four years have passed. He's on the threshold of what could be a promising academic career. Set aside the academic institutional questions I discussed above. Isn't it kind of cruel to try to sink him (and in the process, hurt his coauthor) because of something he said when he was 17, stupid, rude, and nasty as it may have been? Isn't it kind of petty?

UPDATE: Links fixed; sorry they were broken.

Scholarly Journals and Authors' Past Offensive Speech (1):

1. The Yale Law Journal is embroiled in a controversy. The Journal accepted a paper for a symposium; but now it turns out that four years ago, a coauthor of the paper made what certainly seems like a racist statement. (For whatever it's worth, the paper has nothing to do with race.)

Should the Journal withdraw the offer? Some argue yes; the Journal has said no. It seems to me the Journal is absolutely right. The same should apply when journals consider papers written by people who have expressed Communist sympathies, or who praise terrorists, or who oppose or defend homosexuality, or who offend our sensibilities in countless other ways.

Academic journals are special institutions, with a special mission: the publication of ideas that advance knowledge in their field. To operate best, it seems to me, they should be committed single-mindedly to that goal. They may consider the quality of the paper (and quality in a broad sense, including soundness, novelty, relevance to hot current debates, relevance to timeless issues, accessibility, and the like). They may even consider the author's credentials, when they think these credentials are a proxy for the paper's likely merit, and when a proxy is needed. They may also consider the author's past misconduct when it may influence the quality of a paper; for instance, they may decline to spend time double-checking a paper written by someone who has a reputation for scholarly fraud.

But they shouldn't consider the author's past offensiveness, or the reprehensibleness of the ideas he expresses outside the paper. It's about getting ideas out to the readers, not about the moral character of the writer (or at least it should be about it). If a new discovery by transistor discoverer William Shockley (who was a racist) adds to our store of knowledge about electronics, or Noam Chomsky's new linguistics work adds to our store of knowledge about linguistics, it shouldn't matter what you think of the authors' ideas outside those papers.

This needn't be the norm for all fields of human endeavor. When we choose dinner guests, we can quite rightly consider their characters, including their viewpoints; likewise when we choose coauthors. Businesses who are hiring people (e.g., pitchmen or entertainers) whose effectiveness rests partly on public goodwill may consider whether an applicant has done things that have cost him such goodwill. Even academic institutions may — and sometimes should — consider the character of those whom they choose to honor through special honors and awards. And there are even plausible arguments for considering the character of professors, who after all need to judge students fairly, serve as role models for them, and compose fair-minded and accurate lectures with minimal administrative supervision (though I think that on balance universities ought to avoid considering professor's ideologies, despite these concerns).

But the learned journal is a different institution. Its purpose isn't conviviality, collegiality, moneymaking, role modeling, or honoring the honorable. It's an honor to publish in the Yale Law Journal, but the Journal doesn't publish articles in order to honor people; publication of article doesn't mean approbation of the author. Its editors should stick to evaluating ideas in an attempt to advance knowledge, and leave evaluating authors' characters to others.

The Journal's Editor-in-Chief also pointed out some important practical reasons justifying his decision not to retract the offer: (1) Evaluating authors' characters requires journals to get into the business of investigating charges and responses. ("In this case, the central facts of the incident involving Camara are uncontested, but they might not be in other circumstances.") (2) The exception would be hard to limit just to racist epithets, but is likely to grow to include other material that many find offensive. (3) If the Journal excludes some authors for their bad outside-the-article ideas, this would suggest that it's endorsing the outside ideology of those authors whom it does publish. Yet the main point, it seems to me, is maintaining a clear focus on one main goal — the publication of ideas that advance the progress of knowledge.

UPDATE: Links fixed; sorry they were broken.

UPDATE: See also this post by Dan Markel on Prawfsblawg, which I largely agree with (though I'd go further than he would, and say that, yes, "the YLJ (or some comparable journal in philosophy and social thought) should publish Heidegger simply because of the work's contributions," even though Heidegger was a Nazi. (I also agree that if there were a narrow exception for Nazis, Stalinists, and the like, this author -- even if he were sincere and unrepentant, which seems unlikely here -- is very far from that exception; but of course the difficulty with narrow exceptions for Nazis and Stalinists is that they rarely stay narrow.)

A Bit More on Scholarly Journals and Authors' Past Offensive Speech:

By coincidence, the days in which the Yale Law Journal / Kiwi Camara controversy unfolded also brought us this story (thanks to How Appealing for the pointer):

Four white men fired by the Philadelphia School District have won a racial-discrimination lawsuit, and a federal jury awarded them nearly $3 million in damages.

After Friday's verdict, Carl E. Singley, a prominent African American lawyer who represented the school district, exchanged words with some members of the all-white jury as they rode a courthouse elevator. He called them "crackers," four jurors said in interviews.

Within 30 minutes, U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle 3d brought Singley and five of the seven jurors in the case back into his courtroom. Singley, a former Temple Law School dean, promptly apologized.

"What I did and said was inappropriate," Singley said, according to a transcript. "I should not have disrespected you, and I do apologize." . . .

So here's the question: Imagine that a month from now, the Yale Law Journal receives an article submitted by Carl Singley. How would you like the editors to react? Which reaction do you think fosters the best attitude on the editors' part, the attitude that's most likely to help advance legal scholarship?

  1. "Throw it out. We don't publish articles by people who have ever said anything racist."
  2. "Hard call. On the one hand, most whites are probably not as insulted by 'cracker' as they are by 'nig.' On the other hand, this was said to the targets' faces, which probably makes it more insulting; Camara's words weren't. Back to the first hand, it sounds like the author was upset and spoke in a moment of anger, while Camara had more time for deliberation, and in fact knew that his words would offend people. But back to the second hand, Singley is an experienced lawyer, teacher, and administrator, not a 17-year-old, who can be expected to do immature things. Back to the first hand, . . . ."
  3. "Does anyone else know? Are they going to cause a fuss? People who get offended by 'cracker' are probably less likely to start protests, e-mail campaigns, and the like than people who get offended by 'nig'; but will they still cause enough to put us in an awkward position?"
  4. "Better set up an ad hoc committee, arrange a town hall meeting, speak to the representatives of all affected groups, and issue a carefully crafted report."
  5. "Hey, is his article any good?"

I vote for (e).

More on the Authorial Morals Police:

A commenter asks, apropos the Camara controversy:

What about a law review submission by a professor who left his faithful and pregnant wife for a 23 year old former student? While most of us agree that is inappropriate behavior, I can't imagine any serious law journal even considering rejecting an article on that basis. (Maybe because it would eliminate several prominent legal academics?)

Great question; let's also assume that he didn't just leave his wife, but cheated on her, and let's assume that there are no mitigating circumstances. (I think adultery is wrong, but in some situations it may be less wrong than in others -- for instance, if the cheated-on spouse deliberately alienated the cheater through cruelty of various sorts.)

Bad behavior? You bet. Does it reveal a character defect? Sure. Could someone even spin it out as identity politics, as reflecting the professor's mistreatment of women? Definitely. (I think this is just general scumminess, not sexism in any meaningful sense, but others might disagree -- or might rightly condemn the guy just for his scumminess.) Is it at least roughly as bad as using the term "nig" in a publicly distributed outline? I think it is; though racial epithets are offensive and rude, and often affect many people rather than just one (or more likely a few, given that the professor's behavior affects both his wife and their children, current and forthcoming), the harm inflicted by adultery and abandonment of one's children is generally much more intense.

But this has zilch to do with the important question, which is: Does the law review article advance our understanding of law? They're not giving the author a decency award, they're publishing an article for the benefit of readers and of the profession. The same goes with other forms of misconduct, whether or not race is involved.