National Jurist - November 2007 - 18
When are comments out of line? Three law professors faced criticism this year after their ethnicbased comments and Academic Freedom were called into question at Wisconsin, Quinnipiac and John Marshall law schools. eonard Kaplan said he was only doing his job as a professor of law. But the University of Wisconsin Law School professor came under intense scrutiny last spring, after he was accused of denigrating a minority ethnic group during a class discussion. The incident sparked a debate over academic freedom. And while it was the highest profile case by Michelle Weyenberg of the past year, two other recent incidents have elevated the discussion over law professor comments in and out of class. At John Marshall Law School in Chicago, a law professor filed a $1 million lawsuit against the school, saying he was improperly punished for comments he made to a student after class about minorities. And at Quinnipiac University School of Law, a law professor angered several students after he wrote in an email that most law students could not understand the plight of poor people and ethnic minorities. The ensuing discussions pitted free speech advocates against cultural understanding. But what led to different end results was how each law school responded. “In this age of blogging, instant messages, email and talk radio, it’s easy for isolated incidents to morph into international subjects of discussion for people who have limited knowledge of specific events or issues,” wrote University of Wisconsin Chancellor John Wiley in a March statement about Kaplan’s comments. “Although I appreciate legitimate public concerns over free speech and cultural understanding, uninformed accusations don’t address real issues.” The debate at Wisconsin exploded into the national media after the story was picked up on blogs and through other websites. It started after KaShia Moua, a student in the class, circulated an email with quotes Kaplan allegedly made about the Hmong culture during a February lecture. Moua, a third-year at the time, alleged that Professor Kaplan said, among other things: “Hmong men have no talent other than to kill,” “all 2nd generation Hmong end up in gangs and other criminal activity,” and “all Hmong men purchase their wives.” Moua said Kaplan violated students’ rights and “made the unfortunate choice to turn his classroom into a public platform for him to spew his racist and close-minded [sic] beliefs about the Hmong.” “I was teaching my law students that the law is an obstacle to, rather than an instrumental tool for, the needs of displaced ethnic groups,” he wrote. Accounts differ as to whether Moua was in the class at the time the comments were made. The campus newspaper claimed she was, while the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says she was not, and that “she compiled the remarks from others.” Faculty members released a joint statement, stating that they were deeply saddened by the reputational damage done both to the students and “a respected faculty member,” much of which they say was intensified by the mass media and groups outside the community. “This faculty has always been committed to academic freedom, encompassing freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and freedom from government or institutional interference,” the faculty wrote. According to Wiley, engagement, not accusation, is the only way to overcome differences. He added that A week later, Kaplan responded with a public letter to Dean Kenneth Davis, which said that the context of the class was critical, but was taken completely wrong. He was trying to illustrate how some defendants in cases of serious crime, like rape, might rely on cultural practices and attitudes for a defense. The Hmong, native to Southeast Asia, have a sizable population in Minnesota and Wisconsin. 18 THE NATIONAL JURIST November 2007 “In this age of blogging, instant messages, email and talk radio, it’s easy for isolated incidents to morph into international subjects of discussion ” — University of Wisconsin Chancellor John Wiley there was no attempt to limit Kaplan’s free speech rights or his academic freedom to choose his own teaching techniques. “Recent events have shown that we have more work to do in bridging cultural gaps and sustaining a safe and welcoming envi-
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