Most law students like to argue. But there are some who, after cheering recent atrocities by Hamas terrorists, argued themselves out of a job. As proof that irony is taught in law school even though it’s not a listed course, one law student claimed that Israel “bears the full responsibility” for the butchery of Israeli women and children but now seems unwilling to take responsibility for her own statement. So a law firm did it for her and revoked her job offer.
A few cranks will claim this is the latest example of cancel culture. But that’s like calling a consumer’s brand preference a boycott. Cancel culture, in its more trivial form, typically involves shaming individuals into apology for actions or opinions deemed controversial but not particularly harmful. We can all imagine what types of Halloween costume you might wear later this month that would get you cancelled, even as no one is physically hurt by your selection. When deployed frivolously, canceling is counterproductive and a form of bullying. It often focuses on personal or historical wrongs and subjective moralities, drawing lines that are not universally accepted.
That’s not what happened here.
Publicly praising the beheading of infants and rape and murder of innocents isn’t a quibble about a costume or a poorly worded Facebook post. It’s a resignation letter from civil society. It’s legal to send that letter and it’s appropriate for society to accept it.
Those of us who are paying attention to modern trends aren’t surprised that this folly arose from a university setting. All too often, campus debates look less like an American townhall and more like a Roman Coliseum. Attendees are drawn to the events not for love for dialogue and discernment but a lust for anger and agitation.
All of my law school debates were civil, even when heated. Yet such decorum has become a quaint notion of the past, to be filed away in the same dusty cabinet as chivalry and being a good neighbor. Now, we are just as likely to wander down the quad and come upon arguments wielded as weapons with ferocious intensity. Empathy, nuance, and the humanity of discourse are casualties in this theatrical display of adversarial triumphalism. The jousters justify their caustic behavior as “juice worth the squeeze” without a hint of perspective that this has been the argument of dictators in every age.
Some of these law students share opinions about Hamas terrorists that are out of step with world opinion and out of sync with the facts. But it’s not because they’re busy studying torts and civil procedure; others in their generation are similarly ill-informed. Law students ought to have more logic behind their views.
I taught law school for two decades and have practiced for longer than that and I must spill this secret: There’s a briefcase full of nonsense behind much of what’s taught to young attorneys, but wiser minds become cooler heads and moderation and common sense prevail. Many of these law students haven’t yet learned that being a lawyer is more than being a zealous advocate. Zeal is easy. Discretion is hard. And the ethical obligations of attorneys require us to act with professionalism in a way that will preserve the integrity of the justice system.
All law students have a First Amendment right to express their views publicly, yet this right exists side by side with moral considerations about their own—and society’s—obligations. Just as one has the right to speak out, others have the right to associate or dissociate based on the expressed views. For example, a man cheering on a serial rapist by bearing a sign of support outside a courthouse where that rapist is being sentenced is exercising his right to free speech. However, an organization advocating for sexual assault victims possesses an equally valid right, and arguably a moral duty, to reject that man’s application for employment.
A law firm’s decision to withdraw job offers from law students who openly support acts of terrorism is a legitimate exercise of the firm’s right to free association. Their actions are not merely reactions to unpopular opinions but a stand against associating with viewpoints that glorify terrorism. It’s about making a conscious choice not to work with individuals whose values fundamentally conflict with universally accepted moral principles and the mission of that employer.
Upholding such distinctions supports a balanced approach where free speech rights are weighed in tandem with free association. And perhaps the most important law school lesson from this incident is that those who seek to advocate for justice must distinguish between the right to speak and the right to escape consequence.
Mark R. Weaver is an attorney and communications consultant who previously served as the Deputy Attorney General of Ohio. He is the author of the book “A Wordsmith’s Work.” X:@MarkRWeaver.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.