Lecture change will allow emotions to cool
UNM Law likely to reschedule controversial judge for Jan. 23
Recent Journal stories that imply that UNM School of Law caved to political pressure and canceled a planned lecture by Judge Ken Starr are simply untrue. Monday’s editorial titled “UNM Law Cancels Starr and Sells its Students Short” states that the idea that our law school “would cancel a speaker because of potential controversy is troubling at best and a major disservice to its students at worst.” When Judge Starr and I spoke, we affirmatively and adamantly agreed that it was not being canceled or postponed indefinitely. Since then, we have been working on finding a mutually agreeable date.
I am a believer in the free flow of ideas, and we invited Judge Starr to speak here precisely because his lecture will generate a healthy debate. His lecture topic, “Investigating the President, Now and Then: Living in a Constitutional Quagmire,” is fascinating. That said, sometimes circumstances can so inflame emotions that we actually risk stifling debate and shifting the focus away from the topic rather than promoting a healthy exchange of views. The Journal acknowledged as much after running an editorial cartoon portraying muggers as “Dreamers.” After an outcry, the Journal’s editor wrote, “In hindsight, instead of generating debate, this cartoon only inflamed emotions. …” As a result, the editor pledged a higher level of scrutiny of their content.
Judge Starr’s planned visit presented a similar situation. As we approached the planned date for the lecture, the national cultural context had acutely sharpened public concern for women who have been sexually assaulted, and the Kavanaugh hearings had ignited public opinion and re-traumatized some assault survivors. Primarily because Judge Starr had worked closely with Justice Kavanaugh and had expressed support for his confirmation, it became apparent that this, instead of the planned lecture topic, could become the focus of his visit. Also, we would be perceived as tone deaf to the concerns of women by hosting this event shortly after Justice Kavanaugh’s swearing-in and only five days before a contentious national election.
We reached out to Judge Starr because we felt that we owed him the courtesy of having a conversation about the timing of the event and the message it would convey, not to tell him what to do. We discussed options, including going forward with the public event as planned, hosting it as a private event, or rescheduling it for a future date. There was no magic to the selection of the planned date, and we decided jointly that we would postpone the lecture. The law school did not ban, censor or unilaterally halt his lecture. This was a conversation and a joint decision.
By putting a little time between the lecture and Kavanaugh’s confirmation, we hope tensions will cool a bit and people will be able to come together to have a civil debate regarding the planned topic, which will be equally as interesting and relevant a couple of months after the election as before it.
This was never about caving to public pressure, but solely about respect and delaying the event to a time when we can have a civil discussion. While some people will object to any date change, I stand by our joint decision to postpone the event. There are ways to respect free speech while also being respectful of women who are assault survivors. In this context I felt it respectful to delay for a short period of time.
I fully agree with the Journal’s statement that it’s important to “foster critical thinking and constructive debate among (the law school’s) students.” I am all for inviting controversial speakers to campus — as evidenced by our invitation to Judge Starr. It is part of our mission to bring in speakers who will encourage lively debate.
Although the date is still tentative, it looks like Jan. 23 may be the best date for the event. Please pencil that in on your calendars. The event will, no doubt, be well-attended.