Earlier this week, we discussed the discovery of potentially anti-Semitic graffiti in Vanderbilt Hall, the home of NYU Law School. Yesterday Dean Richard Revesz issued a forceful response to the law school community via email, condemning the graffiti as “highly offensive and hurtful” and declaring that “[s]uch hateful conduct is deplorable and has no place in our community.” (We’ve reprinted Dean Revesz’s message in full at the end of this post.)
Some observers, however, questioned whether the graffiti was really that bad. First, it was vague and conclusory, reading simply, “Damn Orthodox Jews.” Second, rather than reflecting animus from a non-Jew against Jews, the statement might have reflected tensions within the Jewish community itself. Several commenters raised the possibility that the graffiti was written by a less religious Jew who objects to the greater religiosity of Orthodox Jews.
Dean Revesz’s response raises another issue, namely, whether the administration at NYU Law takes anti-religious discrimination more seriously than discrimination based on sexual orientation (even though both are part of the school’s non-discrimination policy)….
Last year, Above the Law covered the controversy at NYU Law over Dr. Li-ann Thio, who was scheduled to teach human rights law at NYU until she decided not to come to the school after all. While she was a member of the Singaporean parliament, Professor Thio made some inflammatory remarks about gays and gay sexual practices, in the course of arguing against decriminalizing gay sex.
Not surprisingly, when attention was focused on her proposed visit to NYU, controversy erupted. In response to the controversy, the NYU Law administration expressed disagreement with her statements, but defended her right to make them. The administration also refused to withdraw its offer of a visiting professorship to Dr. Thio — a move that was viewed favorably by many defenders of academic freedom, but less favorably by some members of the LGBT community, who wanted her offer yanked.
Based on the administration’s responses to L’Affaire Thio and Graffiti-gate, one student at NYU who spearheaded opposition to Dr. Thio — we’ll call him “Gay NYU 3L” — expressed the opinion that “the Dean considers antisemitic attacks to be on a different level from attacks based on sexual orientation.” Gay NYU 3L wrote to us as follows:
Personally, I feel it is a bit odd that [Dean Revesz’s] response to [the graffiti] incident was far stronger when no individual student was actually targeted. In contrast, Thio Li-ann sent e-mail to 20+ members of the law school faculty attacking me, and she certainly had a Thesaurus at hand based on the amount of different words she used to attack me!
Gay NYU 3L is referring to a particular email that an embattled Dr. Thio sent to a list-serv of NYU faculty members and administrators. In the email, in which she complained about the public opinion campaign against her, Dr. Thio condemned Gay NYU 3L as “narrow-minded,” “recklessly ignorant,” “malicious”, and a “bully” (among other epithets).
In response to Dr. Thio’s email, Gay NYU 3L filed a formal harassment complaint with NYU (reprinted in full at the end of this post). According to Gay NYU 3L, Dean Revesz’s response to the graffiti episode, which included “reach[ing] out to the student who reported the graffiti in order to express outrage at the graffiti and offer support,” was a more robust response, and more supportive of the student involved, than the administration’s response to the controversy over Dr. Thio and the formal harassment complaint that Gay NYU 3L filed. Gay NYU 3L claims that the law school’s administration did not proactively reach out to him and offer support in the Dr. Thio controversy, even after Dr. Thio savaged him over email (although query whether that harsh email was due to his sexual orientation or due to her disagreement with his views and/or tactics).
Speaking of reaching out, we contacted Dean Revesz for comment on the broad issue of anti-religious versus anti-gay discrimination at NYU Law and the administration’s response to each. Dean Revesz commented on the general issue as follows:
I write to answer your inquiry about alleged differences in my response to the graffiti found at the Law School this week and my response to the controversy over Professor Li-ann Thio last summer. In both cases, I issued strong statements to the community categorically rejecting the hateful views expressed. In both instances, senior members of the Law School administration and I reached out to students who had contacted us to express their dismay.
While a distinction exists between the two matters, it does not turn on the identity of the group being attacked. Professor Thio’s views were repugnant and for that reason I condemned them in my two statements last summer. But her right to express those views, however offensive, raised issues of academic freedom, which the graffiti did not. I believe the Law School’s response to both incidents was forceful and appropriate.
The distinction drawn by Dean Revesz seems valid. In order to preserve academic freedom, the members of an academic community should be given wide leeway to put forth controversial views without fear of being condemned as “hatemongers.” If the communication is utterly devoid of substance — e.g., “Damn [Group X]” — then it shouldn’t be entitled to protection. But if the communication has even a smidgen of substance, it should be protected — even if it might be wrongheaded, offensive to some, or subobtimally expressed. See, e.g., the controversial Harvard 3L emails.
And, in general, people need to get thicker skins. One of the (few) positive aspects of vitriolic personal attacks on the internet is that they give those subjected to them, such as your Above the Law editors, pretty thick skin after a while.
If you have thoughts on religious versus sexual-orientation discrimination, at NYU Law or elsewhere, we welcome your (civil) discussion in the comments.
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL — MEMORANDUM FROM DEAN REVESZ
From: Office of the Dean
Date: Thu, Sep 2, 2010
Subject: Vanderbilt Hall Graffiti
To: The Law School community
From: Richard Revesz
Date: September 2, 2010
Re: Vanderbilt Hall Graffiti
As some of you know, on Monday afternoon a student informed NYU Public Safety officers about anti-Semitic graffiti in a men’s restroom stall in Vanderbilt Hall. NYU Public Safety, in turn, reported this incident to the New York City Police Department (NYPD), which sent officers to investigate the situation. The graffiti was highly offensive and hurtful. Such hateful conduct is deplorable and has no place in our community. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms.
An incident of this sort is exceptionally rare in our community. I know of no similar occurrence on our premises in my more than eight years as dean of the Law School. To the contrary, tolerance and inclusion are the hallmarks that define how we work and learn together. The men’s restroom in which the graffiti appeared — just off the lobby on the first floor of Vanderbilt hall — is part of the most public and heavily trafficked area of the Law School, making it hard to know whether this aberrant act originated within our community.
After considering the isolated nature of the incident, the long record of tolerance in our community, and the regular presence of outsiders in the area, we immediately did the following:
1. reached out to the student who reported the graffiti in order to express outrage at the graffiti and offer support;
2. worked with NYU Public Safety and the NYPD to seek the identity of the person responsible for the deplorable act (which, unfortunately, we do not yet know);
3. instructed our maintenance and security teams to be especially vigilant regarding any evidence of future incidents of this sort.
I am now issuing this statement to give our community the relevant information; to underscore that we have no tolerance for such heinous actions; and to ask that we all be vigilant and immediately report any incidents of this sort. I am proud that NYU Law School has long been a place of extraordinary tolerance, where people from diverse backgrounds and with different viewpoints exchange ideas vigorously but with mutual respect, and I am unshaken in my belief that the Law School continues to be such a place. As we welcome new members of our community and begin an academic year, it is especially important to do all we can to ensure that our discussions are civil, respectful, and constructive.
FORMAL HARASSMENT COMPLAINT AND THIO LI-ANN — GAY NYU 3L
Dean Revesz and others of concern,
After reading through the school’s anti-harassment policy, I found that I am supposed to file a formal complaint to the Dean of my school, which would be you. I have copied all other suggested recipients of a formal complaint per the guidlelines in the harassment policy. Although I fully understand Thio Li-ann has decided not to attend NYU, I think it is clear after reading the harassment policy that she violated the policy when she e-mailed me and [Thio Opponent #2]. I also believe she violated the policy by publishing a book entitled Mind The Gap after accepting an offer from NYU, as well as assisting a colleague on a law review article that will be published shortly–also after accepting an offer from NYU.
Therefore, I am quite concerned that your official action and statement to the New York Times did not consider her violation of the anti-harassment policy, or her threat of libel to [Thio Opponent #2], who is both an NYU staff member and student.
Although I did not formally file a complaint previously, the policy states “Any conduct that may be in violation of this policy will be investigated, regardless of whether a complaint is filed, and appropriate remedial action will be initiated.” I brought up this issue informally to numerous members of the NYU community, including Dean Revesz, and Leona Chamberlain from the Office of Legal Counsel in regards to Thio Li-ann’s libel threat, which was made against [Thio Opponent #2], who is both an NYU employee and student. Leona refused to meet with me about this absurd threat of libel by an NYU professor. Dean Revesz issued numerous public statements, none of which properly remedied the situation.
I am concerned that this issue was never investigated, and I would like to have an explanation as to why her conduct falls outside this policy, which is all that I can muster after reading Dean Revesz’s statement in the New York Times.
NYU’s Anti-Harassment policy states:
Prohibited harassment is conduct based on … sexual orientation… when:
such conduct creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work, academic or residential environment
Examples of such prohibited conduct when based upon a legally protected status include, but are not limited to:
* Verbal abuse or hostile behavior such as insulting, teasing, mocking, degrading or ridiculing another person or group;
* Displays or electronic transmission of derogatory, demeaning or hostile materials;
In your article to the New York Times, you stated that Thio Li-ann responded to student e-mails in an “offensive and hurtful” manner. In Thio Li-anns response to my e-mail—which was sent from her NYU e-mail account and thus used NYU resources— she stated that I was: “narrow-minded,” “recklessly ignorant,” “malicious”, a “bully,” “intimidatory,” “blunderbuss,” “disappointing,” “designed only to denigrate and harm,” “ridiculous,” “insidious,” “snide,” “disgraceful,” “foolish, “impertinent,” “sad,” “lop-sided, “motivated by both malice and a blatant disregard for accuracy,” “vicious,” and among many other things… “very good at sneering.”
Keep in mind this e-mail was copied to numerous faculty in staff members of NYU Law, and thus not only did she harass me, but she irreparably damaged my reputation.
I have attached the entire e-mail chain between me, [Thio Opponent #2], and Thio Li-ann, which I think demonstrates quite clearly that we acted in a civil manner, but that she responded with an “electronic transmission of derogatory, demeaning or hostile materials.”
Moreover, her book Mind The Gap, which was published after she accepted an offer at NYU (to the best of my knowledge), was clearly “Verbal abuse or hostile behavior such as insulting, teasing, mocking, degrading or ridiculing another person or group.” The thesis of that book is roughly that homosexuals are evil and will cause Armageddon. I have a copy if anyone would like to borrow it.
[Gay NYU 3L]