In American history, other examples exist of prosecutorial misconduct—though Mike Nifong is rapidly earning himself a position among the worst of such cases. Other examples exist of women filing false claims of rape—though few, it would seem, possess as many credibility problems as this accuser and the story that she ultimately told. Other examples exist of the media getting a story badly wrong and refusing to reconsider—though few parallel the behavior of the New York Times or the Herald-Sun over the past eight months.
But at least one aspect of this case appears to be unique. I know of no other criminal case in which the statements and behavior of the students’ own professors constituted grounds for a change of venue. The recent defense motion (pages 16-18) details the actions of the Duke faculty members whose irresponsible conduct has shamed the profession: Houston Baker, William Chafe, Wahneema Lubiano, Grant Farred, Peter Wood, Joseph DiBona, Karla Holloway, others in the Group of 88. These professors give new meaning to the promise that at Duke, “teaching is personal,” with faculty members “committed to giving students the individual attention that nurtures ideas and pushes them to excel.”
The change-of-venue motion’s faculty section, unsurprisingly, revolves around the Group of 88’s statement. Several weeks ago, Holloway complained that the Group’s critics had “displaced the actual content of the ad for the fiction of their own meagerly articulated agendas.” In fact, most critics have focused on the “actual content” of the ad, which several weeks ago vanished from the Duke website. Specifically, the signatories:
- asserted that something “happened” to the accuser;
- said “thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard” to protesters who had branded the lacrosse players rapists;
- promised that their agenda “won’t end with what the police say or the court decides,” coupled with their commitment to “turning up the volume”;
- lashed out at the lacrosse players for triggering a “social disaster.”
Group members, on the other hand, have offered a variety of interpretations of the statement’s meaning, several of which are unsupported by the document’s “actual content.”
Alex Rosenberg. In an October interview with the New York Sun, the R. Taylor Cole professor of philosophy stated that he signed the statement to express his opposition to “affluent kids violating the law to get exploited women to take their clothes off when they could get as much hookup as they wanted from rich and attractive Duke coeds.” A few weeks later, he offered a different rationale, contending that, with his signature, he was “complaining about the culture of drunken loutishness on campus.”
The “actual content”: The ad does not contain the words “alcohol,” “drinking,” “beer,” or any other word suggesting that its signatories were expressing an opinion one way or the other about such issues. Regarding
Sherman James. In a November interview with the Chronicle, James asserted, “I stand by my right to express my opinion, other than that I don’t have anything to say. I think everyone should have the opportunity to express an opinion.”
The “actual content”: The ad contains no references to the First Amendment, academic freedom, or even freedom of speech in the abstract. Some, moreover, might consider it unusual to strike a blow for civil liberties by signing a statement that implicitly aided Mike Nifong’s prosecutorial misconduct.
Alice Kaplan. “I signed the statement,” she asserted, “because I care about Duke and I care about the students and the experiences they’re having.”
The “actual content”: The ad does reference alleged (anonymous) student experiences. But Kaplan’s rationalization strains credulity. As her colleague, Michael Gustafson, pointed out, “I would agree with Professor Kaplan’s assertion that the faculty members who signed that petition cared about what all their students were going through if, parallel to the ad that ran this spring, there had been a new one that came out this summer or fall capturing the outrage over the due process denied our students. I would have a better time accepting her statement if any one of the people who signed that document had spoken out against the death threats hurled at our students, against calls for our students to be ‘...prosecuted whether it happened or not. It would be justice for things that happened in the past’ as reported in Newsweek. But instead - there was silence - the same kind the faculty that supported that ad railed against. This is still a social disaster, but the inability to see it in its fullness has left us even more polarized than before.”
Maurice Wallace: “The fact is,” he wrote one correspondent, the ad “does not criticize the lacrosse players(!).” [emphasis added] Instead, the statement “is a record of sentiments shared by no less than two or three generations of Duke's invisible classes.” For good measure, he noted, “I have not reconsidered signing the ad. I plan no public statements on behalf the accused students. They have secured well-paid lawyers to do that.”
The “actual content”: It would appear that Professor Wallace did not read the advertisement before signing it.
William Chafe: In a Chronicle op-ed published a few days before the ad appeared, Chafe argued that the lacrosse players’ actions needed to be interpreted through such history as “Emmett Till was brutalized and lynched in Mississippi in 1954” and “sex and race have always interacted in a vicious chemistry of power, privilege, and control.”
The “actual content”: It’s hard to see much concern with the fate of Emmett Till—or with race or racism in general—in the faces or slogans of protesters like these, whose conduct the ad publicly thanked. After criticizing the players on several occasions in the spring, Chafe abruptly changed course in May. He asserted that “whether or not a sexual assault took place is something we will not know for months and is a task for the criminal-justice system to establish,” and therefore he would no longer comment on the issue, or on questions of due process for Duke students.
Wahneema Lubiano: “Members of the team,” she wrote in a blog posting explaining the ad’s purpose, “are almost perfect offenders in the sense that [critical race theorist Kimberle] Crenshaw writes about,” since they are “the exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy, the politically dominant race and ethnicity, the dominant gender, the dominant sexuality, and the dominant social group on campus.” ESPN reported that Lubiano “knew some would see the ad as a stake through the collective heart of the lacrosse team.”
The “actual content”: Lubiano authored the ad. Presumably its wording reflected her beliefs.
Many other Group of 88 members refused requests from both the Chronicle and from me to provide an explanation of why they signed the statement and what they thought the statement meant.
In short, 88 faculty members—people who are paid to say what they mean and mean what they say—produced a statement so inflammatory in content and effect that it contributed to the need for a change in venue. And yet these same professors were so cavalier about their act that they cannot even collectively come up with an interpretation of the statement’s meaning that corresponds to the text.
Some say it was about drinking; to others, it addressed the problems of the past. Some say it mobilized sentiment against the “perfect offenders”; for others, it had nothing to do with the lacrosse players. Some cite Emmett Till as a reference point; others turned to what current-day alleged Duke students thought about events. And Holloway contends that critics have “displaced the actual content of the ad for the fiction of their own meagerly articulated agendas”?
In the end, what matters is the text. And the text rationalized a rush-to-judgment attitude that is worthy of the strongest condemnation.
Hat tips: G.N., D.F.