While a substantial portion of last Tuesday’s SBA meeting covered topics such as staplers next to (or within!) printers, the upcoming expiration of our resident Subway’s contract, bike racks, and not the least, a resolution on diversity and inclusion, a bit of a shadow seemed to loom over the first segment of the agenda as the representatives awaited the inevitable. In the wake of the recent spate of e-mails following the death of Justice Scalia, the agenda was split between reactions to the faculty’s use of the GULC e-mail as an appropriate forum for the discourse and the SBA president’s public response to the discussion.
The debate regarding professors’ use of e-mail to publicize their reactions to both Scalia’s death and GULC’s subsequent press release seemed to reflect an even split. Many questioned the policies in place for obtaining permission to e-mail the entire student body, remarking on the difficulty of securing permission for the most mundane of announcements, while others voiced concern that student exclusion from such a dialogue would be a grave wrong. This in turn generated a discussion regarding the availability of other platforms of debate, such as town halls that have taken place in the past on the main campus (such as last year). Several representatives brought up the need to preserve the Law Center’s reputation in the eyes of incoming students and donors, but the room was divided on whether the e-mail chain did in fact do so, or just the opposite. To this end, many felt that their constituents were marginalized by Dean Treanor’s statement, and that Professor Peller’s e-mail, were uniquely positioned to articulate their displeasure. Others countered that the back-and-forth represented a petty melodrama best kept private. One representative bemoaned the implication of student impressionability underlying several of the e-mails. The overwhelming theme that permeated the debate was the valuation of civil discourse: it was the form that discourse might take that provided the fodder for debate.
Due to the discussion’s relatively wide coverage, SBA President Rachel Morris crafted a message to be included in the organization’s weekly e-mail update, which provided the substance of the second half of the debate that evening. It lauded Scalia as a “brilliant … disciplined and principled jurist who held the Court, our Constitution, and this great nation in the highest esteem.” In a nod to the parties outraged by Dean Treanor’s original press release, Morris reminded the student body that “whether we agree with another’s thinking or they challenge our own thinking, we are fortunate to attend an academic institution whose strength in part derives from the respect for diversity of thought.” She then referenced the friendship between Justices Scalia and Ginsburg as a parallel for the discourse that’s swept the campus over the past few weeks.
This latest iteration in a discussion that seems to be gaining force as it becomes further chronologically removed from its genesis proved a step too far for several members of the Association. One representative stated that because Morris was elected as representative of the student body, her choice to speak decisively for the community was inappropriate. Another retorted that precisely because Morris is president, she is entitled to speak for the students, and urged any student feeling underrepresented to cast his or her vote for SBA president next year in a manner that would reflect this disenchantment. An overwhelming majority of the representatives at the meeting pointed to the address formulated by the Black Law Students Association as an appropriate and commendable response to the discourse.
The letter (which can be found here), states that “while we support an individual student’s choice to mourn, it must also be acknowledged that Justice Scalia’s legacy affects us in vastly different ways. As a result, some of the viewpoints expressed in the email exchange were disheartening for many in our membership. It is our hope that we can be candid with our community in this letter regarding those sentiments, and as a result, foster an environment of greater inclusiveness at Georgetown Law.” The address went on to examine Professor Rosenkranz’s and Barnett’s depiction of 1Ls who might be “traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry” following Professor Peller’s e-mail, and pointed out that many Black Students would fit the same description following the “callous, ill-formed analogy to the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall in [Rosenkranz’s and Barnett’s] email response.” It also referenced comments made by Justice Scalia months prior to his death regarding affirmative action, concluding that “in the same spirit of understanding and empathy called for by professors, and given Justice Scalia’s often polarizing, offensive and intolerant stances, we ask that an individual’s decision of whether or not to mourn be equally respected.”
While it’s difficult to say if any conclusions were reached by the close of meeting, what was abundantly clear throughout was the overarching sense that SBA representatives take their positions as the student body’s voice very seriously. While the conversation was at times heated and sometimes colorful, the diversity of viewpoints and the respectfulness of the commentary perhaps reflected the civil discourse that the students seem to be requesting of their faculty.
Audio recordings of SBA meetings are available on their website.