The Editor Strikes Back

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 2/6

It’s storytime at CounterCurrent, so grab some popcorn and take a seat. We’ve got a good one this week, complete with all the twists and turns that one can expect when stepping into a campus controversy. Of course, the ending won’t be a surprise if you’re familiar with today’s culture of academic censorship—but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Our story begins at Emory Law School. In 2021, the editorial board for the Emory Law Journal (ELJ) announced that they would be publishing a Festschrift in honor of retiring Emory Law professor Michael Perry. They reached out to a select number of scholars who had worked closely with Perry over the years and invited them to contribute articles engaging with his work. The invited contributors included University of San Diego Law School professor Lawrence Alexander, a longtime friend and colleague of Professor Perry’s.  

Professor Alexander drafted an article that focused on Perry’s early work on equal protection, which he titled “Michael Perry and Disproportionate Racial Impact.” In the article, he stated that he believed some of Perry’s writings on the topic of equal protection were “misguided.” However, he emphasized that he raised the issue “not to find a bone to pick somewhere in Michael’s impressive body of work, but because his error in that early work has an analogue in today’s political discourse, which makes that error of many years past of contemporary importance.” The first two sections of the article addressed both the Supreme Court precedent and Perry’s own view on disparate racial impact. In the third section, Alexander connected the analysis to contemporary racial politics and, specifically, what he argued were unfounded claims about systemic racism. 

Once the article was complete, Alexander sent it off to Executive Articles Editor Shawn Ren for review. Ren responded with a series of recommendations and a friendly warning that “the refutation of the presence of systemic racism might be a highly controversial viewpoint.” However, he explicitly stated that the comments were “merely suggestions” and that Alexander should “feel free to incorporate or dismiss [the] suggestions” as he saw fit. Alexander, in turn, responded by accepting one of the suggestions and requesting that the rest of the text be left unchanged. 

You may think this is a rather uneventful story (as indeed it should have been), and perhaps you want a refund for that popcorn. But here’s where things get interesting. After Alexander responded to the recommendations, he received a shocking email from ELJ Editor-in-Chief Danielle Kerker Goldstein declaring that the journal would not publish the article unless he removed the entire third section. In a drastic reversal from Ren’s earlier tone, Kerker Goldstein wrote that the Executive Board found his words “hurtful and unnecessarily divisive” and “unanimously stated they do not feel comfortable publishing this piece as written.” When Alexander refused to acquiesce to her demands, Kerker Goldstein officially withdrew the publication offer.

In a pair of articles for Minding the Campus, MTC columnist Louis K. Bonham details both the censorship at Emory and the public response. The fallout came quickly, Bonham explains: 

Reaction to the ELJ’s woke censorship has been swift and universally negative. Two of the other Festschrift contributors have pulled their pieces in protest, and two others are requiring a statement be published at the top of their pieces protesting the ELJ’s refusal to publish the Alexander article. That the Festschrift honoring Professor Perry will now be remembered not for his work or the scholarship written in his honor, but for the students on the ELJ board hijacking it for their own virtue-signaling exercise, is simply appalling.

Through its censorious behavior, the Emory Law Journal has done more than tarnish its good name. It has undermined its very reason for existence. In the words of National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood, as quoted in Bonham’s opening article

That the members of the ELJ’s editorial board might be uncomfortable in reading forceful arguments against an idea they cherish—or possibly an idea they recognize cannot be challenged without the risk that others will object strenuously—is all the more reason why they should have upheld Professor Alexander’s intellectual freedom. The ideal of intellectual freedom is not to provide comfort for those whose ideas conform to prevailing opinion. It is, to the contrary, to create space for those who dissent from the status quo. In attempting to force Professor Alexander to remove this section of his essay, they have betrayed the foundational principle of their journal. 

And that’s where our story ends. Rather than embracing intellectual diversity in their journal, a group of law students attempted to silence dissent and stifle debate. But thanks to Professor Alexander’s refusal to back down, they succeeded only in shining the spotlight on the very arguments they sought to suppress. Let’s hope other professors follow his lead.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

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