Yesterday I was busy trying to keep bullies out of jail. Check out my editorial in the New York Daily News for a full discussion on how I would handle mean children. But while I was away, news broke that the Syracuse College of Law is conducting its very own witch hunt, which could lead to the expulsion and deportation of a kid accused of saying mean things on the internet.
I’m telling you guys, this country is going to hell, one ridiculous overreaction at a time.
If you missed the story, the ABA Journal has a nice summary of what’s going on at Syracuse. The facts are pretty straightforward: student writes a satirical blog which attributes funny, Onion-style quotes to real people. The real people get their panties in a bunch. Syracuse launches an investigation into whether or not the blog constituted libelous bullying of other students, and whether the student author should be expelled for a “code of conduct” violation.
Now, to be clear, if we are going to hold people accountable for being mean to others, expulsion (and not jail) is a far more appropriate response. But, to my mind, this isn’t libel. This is clear parody, and satire should be protected, not punished…
The Syracuse student newspaper, The Daily Orange, reports on the kind of irreverent behavior displayed on the blog:
The blog features topics like “Class of 2013 Named Most Attractive in History” and “Senate President Elected SU’s Sexiest Semite.” Fake quotes and content are used throughout the blog entries and generally are attributed to students or faculty of the law school. Some posts include made-up names.
The blog has now been put behind a password, so we can’t go into these posts and judge for ourselves. But there is one key detail the Daily Orange reports:
A disclaimer on the blog states it is a satirical publication, not a news blog, and no actual news stories appear on the site.
How does this not settle the issue?
Okay, full disclosure: while in law school, I was a member of the Harvard Law School Parody. Many schools have “Law Revue ” type shows in the spring (and producers out there, don’t forget to start thinking about the skit you’ll submit to the Above the Law Law Revue Contest this year). But the HLS Parody has a different edge than most shows. It’s hard to explain, so I’ll paraphrase The Simpsons: “Other Law Revues reward knowledge; the HLS Parody punishes ignorance.” We are brutal to each other during the show. And to professors. I’m thankful every day that there is no video of the guy who played “Yelling Mystal” my 3L year.
But it was a parody; it was a satire. And thankfully HLS students and faculty had much better things to do with their time than run around getting offended and demanding investigations every time someone got insulted. People have thrown drinks at Parody cast members; nobody’s ever tried to get them expelled from school.
But apparently Syracuse law professor Gregory Germain has enough free time to be concerned and offended about this kind of stuff. He’s heading the SU investigation into the matter. The ABA Journal reports:
Germain told the ABA Journal in an e-mail that he’s no fan of the blog. “Yes, I think the blog was designed to be offensive, and is in very bad taste,” Germain said. “I also think that students who make anonymous blog posts to ridicule and embarrass other students deserve the enmity of the community. In my opinion, immature cowardly bullying should be strongly condemned, especially in a professional school where we have a responsibility to train students to be lawyers who must demonstrate a high standard of honesty, integrity, fairness, confidentiality and judgment.
“With that said, however, I have no intention of charging a violation of our code for exercising bad judgment or showing bad taste. I can only make a charge if I believe that the line between bad judgment and taste on the one hand, and harassment on the other hand, has been crossed.”
Wait, you think your own personal views on taste and humor shouldn’t be basis for expelling kids from law school? How scholarly and legal of you, professor!
Again, without actually seeing the blog posts, it’s hard to get a bead on how offensive these posts may have been. But based on the reports dribbling out, it’s difficult to see how any of this stuff even came close to any reasonable line between satire and libel, much less crossed one.
I didn’t know this argument would be so controversial before I started making it, but apparently it is, so I’ll chose my words very carefully: stop being pussies when it comes to words. You people are law students. What do you think is going to happen to you in the real world? Because I’ll tell you, Professor Germain is not going to be around when opposing counsel, a judge, or a valued client rips you an entirely new orifice in full public view.
But Above the Law will be.