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Even the Columbia School of Journalism Screws Up the UVA/Rolling Stone Rape Case

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So by now you've probably heard all about the story of a gang rape at a frat party at UVA that was published in Rolling Stone in December of last year. And you've probably heard about the subsequent investigation into the story which showed that the attack probably didn't happen, at least not remotely close to the way the purported victim described. Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Erdely was rightly criticized for publishing the story with insufficient fact checking and a healthy dose of deception (such as attributing quotes that were gathered second hand, without noting that the speaker hadn't ever been interviewed).

After the fall out from the article, Rolling Stone asked the Columbia School of Journalism to do a full investigation to see just what exactly went wrong. Though Columbia points to several problems in the initial fact gathering and fact checking, the main problem can really just be explained with the opening paragraph of the report:

Last July 8, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a writer for Rolling Stone, telephoned Emily Renda, a rape survivor working on sexual assault issues as a staff member at the University of Virginia. Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show "what it's like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there's this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture," according to Erdely's notes of the conversation. [Rolling Stone]

Every college freshman will recognize this style of writing. Conclusion first, then find whatever quotations are needed to support your case. The result is generally a bunch of crap.

But, that's not what we're going to focus on today. While Columbia generally gets its criticism of Rolling Stone right, they also get a bit sloppy with the facts and fail to do their own checking:

Erdely and her editors had hoped their investigation would sound an alarm about campus sexual assault and would challenge Virginia and other universities to do better. Instead, the magazine's failure may have spread the idea that many women invent rape allegations. (Social scientists analyzing crime records report that the rate of false rape allegations is 2 to 8 percent.) At the University of Virginia, "It's going to be more difficult now to engage some people … because they have a preconceived notion that women lie about sexual assault," said Alex Pinkleton, a UVA student and rape survivor who was one of Erdely's sources.

Social scientists analyzing crime records did not report that the rate of false rape allegations is 2 to 8 percent. What they did report is that 2 to 8 percent of cases are classified as false rape allegations. Might not sound like much of a difference, but it turns out to be a very substantial one. According to the article published in the journal Violence Against Women: "To classify a case as a false allegation, a thorough investigation must yield evidence that a crime did not occur."

The 2-8% figure is not the rate of false rape allegations, but instead the rate of allegations where there is substantial evidence indicating that it's probably a false allegation. Something close to the Clear and Convincing standard.

To see just what makes Columbia's claim so absurd, just imagine running the numbers in the other direction. How many investigations produce significant evidence that the allegations are true? According to RAINN, for every 32 reports to the police, 7 will lead to an arrest, 3 will be referred to a prosecutor, and 2 will result in a felony conviction. Assuming only cases with substantial evidence are referred to prosecutors, the rate of true allegations would only be about 10-22%.

But how could 2-8% of cases be false while only 10-22% are true?

Because in the vast majority of cases, we don't know either way. That's not at all how the Columbia School of Journalism presented it though. And you'd think in a story about bad fact checking and shady reporting practices, they wouldn't have played so fast and loose with the facts. Again, we see the same tricks employed by your typical college freshman: Find a source that comes close, misrepresent what it says by just a little bit, and hope the professor doesn't bother to do a careful check.

University of Oklahoma Declares War on the Constitution

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As anyone with an active social media life is probably already aware, a group of fraternity brothers at the University of Oklahoma performed a racist chant on a bus, some very smart person decided to record it, and some even smarter person decided to leak the video. Of course, frats engaging in offensive behavior is nothing new. What makes this case special is the university's response:

To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves "Sooners." Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members.

Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between this University and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. Those needing to make special arrangements for positions shall contact the Dean of Students.

All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.

David L. Boren President University of Oklahoma

Most people have cheered on President Boren. Most people aren't (very) racist, most people deplore racism, and more people like it when racists get their comeuppence. Most people haven't bothered to consider what "public" in "public university" means.

Here in the good ol' USA, we have freedom of speech, protected by the First Amendment. And with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment a few years ago, the First Amendment applies to the states and other local government agencies. And specifically, it applies to public universities. The First Amendment regulates public universities. The First Amendment regulates public universities. Really can't say this enough, the First Amendment regulates public universities.

[T]he precedents of this Court leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large. Quite to the contrary, the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools." Healy v. James (1972) (internal citations omitted)

The First Amendment regulates public universities. And you know what the First Amendment doesn't allow? View point discrimination. You know what evicting someone because of their expressed views is? View point discrimination. You know who can't do that? A public university.

But wait! You might say that the school isn't saying they can't hold those views. It's just saying they can't use university space for their private racist social club. And there's no right to use space for your private club, now is there? That might be a good argument, if only Healy v. James was specifically about the ability for a university to deny recognition of a student group based solely on that group's objectionable views. The First Amendment doesn't just prevent the government from directly prohibiting speech, it also prevents it from punishing people in other ways based on their views.

The law really couldn't be more clear on this. OU's anti-discrimination policy couldn't be more clear on this: "Members of the University community enjoy significant free speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. This policy is intended to protect members of the University community from discrimination not to regulate protected speech." And even President Boren's message couldn't be more clear. He acknowledges that the students have the right to free speech, but is punishing them for what he sees as a "misuse" of that right.

If your right to free speech is limited to only those words which President Boren deems acceptable, then it isn't free speech. "There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation." President Boren really needs to go back to a high school civics class. Individuals can choose not to tolerate racists or racism. But government actors? The Constitution requires tolerance, no matter how abhorrent the view.

The Changing Definition of Legal Scholarship

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The Touro Law Review has published an issue focusing on "Engaged Scholarship and the Changing Definition of Scholarly Work", which has been a rather hot topic lately in the legal blogosphere. The debate tends to focus on the question of legal scholarship's value. On the one side are the entrenched academics who argue that scholarship influences not just other scholars, but judges and practitioners, and also makes them better professors. On the other side are the reformers who assert that the vast majority of scholarship not only doesn't influence anyone, but is hardly read by anyone, and with such little impact it's probably not worth spending over half a billion dollars a year on. (That price would be roughly half of professor salaries, assuming they spend about half their time on scholarship. If you add in interest paid, since it's debt financed, you're looking at maybe three quarters of a billion.)

But today we're going to look at the debate in a different way. What if legal scholarship is just objectively bad?

In announcing the new Touro Law Review issue, Patricia Salkin write on The Faculty Lounge:

Arcila of Touro Law Center offers an introductory piece, The Future of Scholarship in Law Schools, beginning with a discussion of the scholarly obligation to engage in research and scholarship noting that despite the waves of anti-intellectualism, scholarship “…influences public and academic discourse, legislation, and judicial decisions, all of which guide our conduct.” He asserts that even with the increased emphasis on experiential legal education, scholarship deserves prominence not only because it is “central to the role of institutions of higher education as creators of knowledge and fonts of ideas about law’s role in society, government, and business,” but also because such efforts also help to inform our teaching role by deepening knowledge and thinking on the subject matters we teach.

If one were to reach Arcila's article, they would expect to find evidence that scholarship influences discourse, legislation, and judicial decisions. Looking at the article we can easily find the exact language Salkin quoted:

Waves of anti-intellectualism come and go.4 We are in the midst of one now, a wave whose crest may even have reached the highest levels of our judiciary.5 But it is undeniable that legal scholarship has had, and continues to have, an impact on the most important legal issues that confront us.6 It influences public and academic discourse, legislation, and judicial decisions, all of which guide our conduct.

In a debate over the impact of legal scholarship, in which one side is clearly denying the impact, it's pretty odd to call such impact undeniable. Of course it can be denied. One only need to spend a few minutes on The Faculty Lounge or PrawfsBlawg to see it being denied. The denial happens all the time. What's more interesting of course is if the deniers are in the right, or if they're ignoring what should be convincing evidence. So to that end, let's check out ol' footnote 6 there:

Professor Robert Condlin has usefully collected citations exemplifying “numerous contributions of legal scholarship to the development of law over the years,” in areas as important and diverse as privacy, tax, commodities trading, antitrust, property, environmental protection, copyright, consumer financial protection, product safety, “and dozens of others,” and also pointed to “the systemic contributions of [numerous other] scholars.” Robert J. Condlin, “Practice Ready Graduates”: A Millennialist Fantasy, 31 TOURO L. REV. 71, 80-81 n.28 (2014). The law and economics movement, including Coase’s Theorem and more, has had terrific influence.

Alrighty, off to Issue 31 to find Condlin's article. The language Arcila is quoting is actually from a footnote, and a whopper of a footnote at that! In fact, the majority of Condlin's article is footnote text, with several pages offering only a few lines of the essay itself. Here's the relevant excerpt from FN28:

In this same spirit, it depicts legal scholarship as a drag on education, adding to its cost without producing any corresponding benefit, ignoring the numerous contributions of legal scholarship to the development of law over the years. See, e.g., Samuel D. Warren & Louis D. Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 HARV. L. REV. 193 (1890) (privacy); Boris I. Bittker, Tax Shelters, Nonrecourse Debt, and the Crane Case, 33 TAX L. REV. 277 (1978) (tax); Saule T. Omarova, The Merchants of Wall Street: Banking, Commerce, and Commodities, 98 MINN. L. REV. 265 (2013) (commodities trading); ROBERT H. BORK, THE ANTITRUST PARADOX (2d ed. 1993) (antitrust); Charles A. Reich, The New Property, 73 YALE L. J. 733 (1964) (property); Joseph L. Sax, The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resource Law: Effective Judicial Intervention, 68 MICH. L. REV. 471 (1970) (environmental protection); Robert C. Denicola, Applied Art and Industrial Design: A Suggested Approach to Copyright in Useful Articles, 67 MINN. L. REV. 707 (1983) (copyright); Elizabeth Warren, Unsafe at Any Rate, DEMOCRACY, Summer 2007, available at http://www.democracyjournal.org/5/6528.php (consumer financial protection); GUIDO CALABRESI, THE COST OF ACCIDENTS: A LEGAL AND ECONOMIC ANALYSIS (1970) (product safety); and dozens of others. See THE CANON OF AMERICAN LEGAL THOUGHT (David Kennedy & William Fisher III eds., 2006) (describing twenty law review articles that have had a profound effect on the shape of American law and legal institutions); Michelle M. Harner & Jason A. Cantone, Is Legal Scholarship Out of Touch? An Empirical Analysis of the Use of Scholarship in Business Law Cases, 19 U. MIAMI BUS. L. REV. 1 (2011) (describing the influence of legal business law scholarship on the decisions of the Delaware Supreme Court). It also ignores the systemic contributions of scholars like Henry Hart and Albert Sachs, Mitchell Polinsky, Richard Posner, and numerous others, who changed the ways in which generations of judges and lawyers go about their business and think about law and legal institutions. Scholarship is the legal system’s seed corn, and destroying seed corn eventually makes an ecosystem uninhabitable.

So much text here, it's useful to remember how Arcila described this. It's a collection of citations exemplifying the numerous contributions of legal scholarship, and this collection is used to back up the claim that legal scholarship's past and continuing impact is undeniable. You know what's missing from the list though? The impact! Most of the list just references the articles themselves, and does nothing to demonstrate their impact. Consider the difference between these two statements:

Many people find hamburgers to be delicious and a great value. See, for example, Five Guys.

Many people find hamburgers to be delicious and a great value. See, for example, Zagat's review of Five Guys.

The first just says a burger place exists. The second points to a source that will speak to whether or not the burgers are delicious and a great value.

We're also going to note that not all of the authors are relevant to Arcila's argument. Samuel Warren, Louis Brandeis, and Albert Sachs weren't professors. Henry Hart is a poet and hasn't even written any legal scholarship. Perhaps Condlin meant Herbert Hart (better known as H. L. A. Hart). But back to the non-prof legal scholars. Yes, their work was impactful. But, the debate is over the value of scholarship produced within the academy. If practitioners or others want to write articles, no one is going to criticize them for doing so. They do it on their own time and dime. The debate is over scholarship produced by legal academics which is paid for with debt-financed student tuition dollars. Arcila even acknowledges that it's a debate over the academy, not about legal scholarship from other sources, saying "Although there are many ways of approaching this issue, fundamentally, it revolves around the future role of research and scholarship within law schools" (emphasis added). A list which includes (and even leads off with) non-professor articles actually helps to undermine the argument. If the academy was the only place producing scholarship there's a stronger argument in favor of it, but it's clearly not.

The Condlin list contains two other interesting entries though, two sources which purport to speak to the impact of legal scholarship. So now we need to dig into those two. First up, the Canon of American Legal Thought (and fyi, to all the novice writers out there, you can remove all caps when you're citing a source). Four of the articles is discusses are written by non law professors (we're not counting Coase because he became a law prof after writing his most influential work -- you don't get to hire someone after the fact and then claim his work as the work of your institution).

Next, the Harner and Cantone article on business law cases. Long story short, courts are generally citing legal articles less, but are citing specialty journals more. But that's not the end of the story. When it comes to citing specialty journals, courts are slightly more likely to cite a piece written by a practitioner than one written by a professor.

 

Let us once again return to Arcila's claim: "[I]t is undeniable that legal scholarship has had, and continues to have, an impact on the most important legal issues that confront us. It influences public and academic discourse, legislation, and judicial decisions, all of which guide our conduct." Her evidence is a list put together by Condlin which consists of three parts. First, Condlin's own list which fails to demonstrate any impact. Second, the Canon, which does demonstrate impact, but also acknowledges quite a bit of non-lawprof impact. And finally, the business law study, which acknowledges less impact generally, but more among specialty articles, but puts professor impact on par with practitioner impact.

Arcila's claim, while poorly sourced, is in fact true. Legal scholarship does have influence and impact. Kinda. Some legal scholarship has influence. Based on her sources, business specialists and a few dozen philosophers have impact. What she's failed to demonstrate is that the rank and file law professor's scholarship published in a typical law review will have any sort of meaningful impact. And that's what the debate is over. Not the existence of superstars, but the mass of profs consuming half a billion dollars a year in research.

And this brings us back to the initial point. We're not looking at the monetary value of Arcila's article, or the chance that it will help him in his teaching later on. We wanted an objective look. Objectively speaker, Arcila has made a claim which (1) does not speak to the debate, and (2) is poorly supported. Objectively, that is bad scholarship. So much for that "Changing Definition."

Harvard Law Prof Shows How Schools Are Circling The Orwell/Kafka Drain

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A recent article by Harvard law professor Janet Halley on the Harvard Law Review's forum (aka: blog) contains a whopper of a story:

I recently assisted a young man who was subjected by administrators at his small liberal arts university in Oregon to a month-long investigation into all his campus relationships, seeking information about his possible sexual misconduct in them (an immense invasion of his and his friends’ privacy), and who was ordered to stay away from a fellow student (cutting him off from his housing, his campus job, and educational opportunity) — all because he reminded her of the man who had raped her months before and thousands of miles away. He was found to be completely innocent of any sexual misconduct and was informed of the basis of the complaint against him only by accident and off-hand. But the stay-away order remained in place, and was so broadly drawn up that he was at constant risk of violating it and coming under discipline for that.

Now we do have take such stories with a grain of salt. Halley doesn't say that she's independently verified his story and students are prone to misinterpreting everything. There's also been plenty of stories involving rape that are devoid of credibility, like the UVA story run in Rolling Stone or Lena Dunham's attack by the "campus Republican." But, if Halley's assertions are correct, this creates a dangerous new precedent. On college campuses you might be punished (and losing your job, your home, and not being able to attend classes is a pretty serious punishment) just for reminding someone of a rapist. This is truly bizzarro territory.

But wait! It gets worse! Last year down the coast at Occidental College, sociology professor Danielle Dirks who helped found the school's Sexual Assault Coalition (that's an anti- group, not a pro- group, btw), created a profile for likely rapists when trying to convince a female student to accuse another of rape. According to Professor Dirks, "[John Doe] fits the profile of other rapists on campus in that he had a high GPA in high school, was his class valedictorian, was on [a sports] team, and was from a good family."

If you can be kicked off campus for reminding a student of a particular rapist (who isn't you), then it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to kick someone off campus for reminding them of rapists generally. After all if we believe that 1 in 4 college women will be raped, it's basically a guarantee that someone on campus will have been raped by someone who meets the profile. And what are we going to do, ask women to come forward and declare that they're being triggered? That runs the risk of re-traumatizing a victim.

Just look at the reactions to the sleepwalker statue at Wellesley. Students made complaints saying the statue of paunchy, pale, sleep walking man in ill-fitting white briefs was "a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of our campus community. Another student said "I know people who have had triggering responses to the statue. The statue was put in a public place without students’ consent.” No one there (at least no one who talked to the major press outlets) claimed that they themselves were actually triggered, or that the statue reminded them of a real rapist in their past. No, they wanted it removed just because it could potentially cause triggering thoughts in some hypothetical students' minds. That student wouldn't even need to have ever been a victim because even non-victims can have upsetting thoughts about sexual assault.

 

Now just imagine what would happen if we got this whole brain trust together. We're going to kick you off campus is seeing you causes someone to have some bad thoughts about sexual assault, and all that's required to trigger isn't even that you be smart, athletic, and come from a good family. Nope, the criteria would basically be what we're going to call the Miss Swan rule, "He look like a man."

Now that might sound like a bunch of conspiracy theory, slippery slope nonsense. But, universities have been letting Title IX administrators take over campus judicial proceedings (just imagine if someone from the OCR got to sit as a judge in a trial), and worse, many are switching to the Single-Investigator model, under which a lone inquisitor plays detective, prosecutor, judge and jury, free to keep the evidence and their reasoning to themselves. This is the model being pushed for by the White House's Campus Sexual Assault Task Force. Schools can be found in violation of Title IX if they are found to have a dangerous or hostile environment for women which interferes with their education, thus denying them equal access.

Crazy as it sounds, the rules are all basically in place to let universities spiral down the Orwell/Kafka drain. All it really requires is an absurd recommendation from the Department of Education about how to interpret the law. At least we can take comfort in known they'll never do exactly that.

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