On Thursday morning, a criminal law professor at Georgetown University Law Center started his class with some startling news. He told his first-year law students that Supreme Court Justice John Roberts was planning to retire due to health concerns. He told his students that he could not reveal his sources but that the information was credible.
Some argue that the internet should not be allowed in law school classrooms. What transpired in Professor Peter Tague’s classroom lends support to that argument. His students proceeded to send out the surprising news via email and/or chat and/or tweet. Somehow it made its way to Radar Online, and soon the blogosphere went into a frenzy over the news.
But the news was spurious. Midway through his lecture on the credibility and reliability of informants, Professor Tague revealed that the Roberts rumor was false and that he was illustrating how someone a lawyer might ordinarily think was a credible source — like a law school professor — could disseminate inaccurate information. An important lesson in law: trust should be based on multiple sources.
It’s an important lesson in journalism as well. And the blogosphere learned it the hard way yesterday. Radar Online published an “exclusive” story that Roberts would be retiring “at any time.”
We did not initially report it here, after checking with our sources and encountering extreme skepticism. But it spread like wildfire through the blogosphere, so we “broke the news” that Roberts was still chief justice. A couple of hours later, we broke real news, of how the rumors got started.
We did not criticize Professor Tague in our story, but we’ve been contacted by his current and former students who wish to defend him. He certainly succeeded in teaching them — and many news organizations — a lesson, but he must also have learned about the dangers of pedagogical pranks in the Internet age…
Edward Sisson, a former Arnold & Porter partner, studied with Professor Tague over two decades ago. He believes Tague just didn’t think about the possible repercussions this could have in the highly-wired, digital age:
As a GULC ’91 JD graduate, I rise in defense of Prof. Tague: he taught my class in evidence and he was one of my favorite professors, very personable and effective. Given that he must be about 70 by now, I am sure he had no idea that with texting (and with the willingness of students to do so during class when they ought to be focusing on the lecture) there was a danger that anything he said at the beginning of class might get out of the class prior to his correcting the record before the end of class. I would not tag him as eccentric, any more so than any other of the dozens of professors I had in my four years of collegiate and three years of legal education.
A student who was in yesterday’s class tells Above the Law:
Personally, I think that Prof. Tague provided a fantastic lesson in precisely why it’s so important for attorneys to not only not believe everything they are told but also to act with discretion. I’m sure that he’s disappointed with the class as a whole, especially because he teaches professional responsibility courses, so I’m sure we will be receiving a talk from him about this. I think it also speaks to the power of the internet in general as well as to the gullibility of journalists who couldn’t be bothered to do any research before repeating an online gossip item. I agree with the GULC alum that he probably didn’t even think about the possibility of it leaving the classroom in a significant way before the reveal. So, no, I don’t think it was improper of him, and he certainly won’t have to repeat the lesson in the following years; all he has to do is tell this story.
A former student says the blame for this debacle rests solely with Professor Tague’s students:
Whoever was gullible enough to buy Tague’s story about Chief Justice Roberts shouldn’t be allowed to practice law. Prof. Tague did the exact same thing last year in my criminal justice class and no one believed him. These 1Ls are just too naive.
Another current student defends the class:
I think the exercise was a good learning experience, and perhaps even more so because of what happened. The lesson Professor Tague intended to teach us was definitely taught, but I think it also reached a lot of others in the legal, journalism, and “journalism” (cough cough Radar) community. People can say all they want about how my classmates who believed Professor Tague were gullible, but the point of the exercise was that it was supposed to sound plausible. After all, Justice Ginsburg’s husband is a Tax Professor at Georgetown, and given the reports of Chief Justice Roberts’ seizures, it seemed at least within the realm of possibilities that Professor Tague had gotten the scoop. In hindsight, it’s easy to question why anyone would believe that, even if he had such information, he would share it with 120 1Ls. But I ask those people mocking us for being gullible to imagine themselves in the first minute of their 9am lecture at the end of a week of little sleep. Yes, some of my classmates caught on right away, but most of us were too shocked (and excited at the mere possibility that this could be true) to question it.
Personally, I immediately started googling trying to find some sort of verification, and was disappointed but still hopeful when I found nothing. About halfway through the class, a fellow student suggested to me that it might all be an exercise to teach us about the problem with confidential, unverified informants. And then the pieces started falling into place. Particularly when Professor Tague started writing questions on the board like “How did the informant obtain information?” and “Do we trust the informant?” By the time Professor Tague told us the truth, most of us were on to his ploy.
So, do I think the exercise did what it was intended to do? Yes. Do I think it was a proper exercise? Well, it was a bit disappointing for those of us whose hopes had been toyed with, but proper nonetheless. Ultimately, I think the fact that it got so out of hand was a generational thing – Professor Tague has been with GULC since the 1970s, and the fast-paced internet reaction is just not one that he probably anticipated. Also, he specifically let us in on the joke before the mid-class break, presumably so we wouldn’t spread the rumor during that break. Little did he know that it was too late.
The other irony is that, in addition to criminal law, Professor Tague teaches Professional Responsibility. I’m fully expecting a lecture when we return from Spring Break on the importance of discretion and confidentiality in the legal field, two things at least one of my classmates failed to exercise. Lesson learned. Well done, Professor Tague.
UPDATE: Another former student contacted us.
Just to add a perspective, I took Tague’s crim class in spring 2002, and he pulled the same trick about Rehnquist. I can only assume he’s been doing the same thing every year for a long time, and each class since some time before 2002 has been filled with wired laptops. Yet this is the first time someone decided to publish the false rumor. So, it’s not just a doddering old fool not thinking that his false rumor would have consequences. It’s a prof who has trusted his students for years, and apparently with good reason until this year.
And another current student chimes in:
First, whoever sent the story to radaronline is a jackass.
Second, it was the day before spring break. Our section had a makeup class that afternoon, so we had 7 hours of class yesterday, so we were all a bit tired from reading late. Tague has the class quiet down, tells us he has something serious to tell us the Roberts. You’ve told a bunch of tired, anxious for excitement 1Ls the supposed biggest story of the year. There was a mild uproar.
THEN, we did NOT begin discussing reliability of informants. We picked up stuff from last class on when a search is “consensual.” See e.g. United States v. Drayton, 536 U.S. 194.
THEN we moved on to when a tip from an ANONYMOUS informant can provide probable cause for a search warrant. We were discussing Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213. In Gates, the Supreme Court throws old the old “two-pronged” test for anonymous informants that required the informant to both have veracity and a basis of knowledge for their tip for a totality of the circumstances standard. Gates specifically says when the police get a tip from someone they believe to be very honest they don’t necessarily need to scrutinize the informants basis of knowledge for that tip. This was not a “lecture about the reliability of informants” per se, it was a discussion of Illinois v. Gates…definitely very related, but it’s not like Tague gave us this Roberts story then immediately started lecturing us Also, by the logic set forth in Gates it almost seems reasonable to believe Tague…if he is playing the role of “informant” he’d certainly be a very credible one in my book.
Tague certainly taught me a lesson I’ll never forget, it was a good one. But the reports that make it sound like Tague gave us a rumor, then immediately began lecturing us on why rumors aren’t to be trusted is quite accurate. I’m not saying we should have believed him, I’m just saying we’re slightly less dumb than the story makes us sound.
FINALLY, a word about the speed of news here. We started class just a couple of minutes late. Tague got our attention. Said hello, etc. I would estimate he didn’t actually tell us the Roberts story until about 9:05am, so those morons at radaronline posted it even quicker than everyone thinks.
There’s still been no official statement from the Supreme Court public information office or from Justice Roberts about all this. Perhaps John Roberts actually enjoyed this national lesson on hearsay.
But what about you, ATL readers? What’s your opinion of Professor Tague’s lesson?
Earlier: Anatomy of a Rumor: The Story Behind Chief Justice John Roberts’s ‘Retirement’
ATL Exclusive: John Roberts Is Still Chief Justice!
And here are some thoughts on this from the rest of the media world and blogosphere:
Mischievous Law Prof + Texting Students = Media Frenzy [Chronicle of Higher Education]
ATL Says Law Prof May Have Sparked False Rumor of Chief Justice’s Retirement [ABA Journal]
Radar Online Wins 15 Minutes Of Fame With False John Roberts Resignation Rumor [Mediaite]
Did RadarOnline.com’s John Roberts Rumor Come From a First-Year Law Class? [Gawker]
UPDATE: John Roberts NOT Resigning; ‘RadarOnline’ Retracts Claim Supreme Court Chief Justice Considering Quitting [Huffington Post]
A Roberts rumor’s blip on Washington’s radar [Associated Press]
Here’s How the Rumor That John Roberts Is Retiring May Have Gotten Started [Daily Intel/New York Magazine]
Radar Claims Two John Roberts Exclusives; One of Them Isn’t True [Media Decoder/New York Times]