Academic Freedom and Yoo

Slate's blog on legal issues.
April 12 2008 3:49 PM

Academic Freedom and Yoo

I agree with


that the questions raised about Yoo's position at Berkeley are complex. I do not hesitate to hold Yoo ethically and morally culpable for what he did as a government lawyer. I am skeptical but I suppose open to specific persuasion that there is a clear case under existing law for his criminal culpability as well. Every employer has its standards for measuring its employees against these matters. And while I suspect Berkeley was mistaken to take him back for a variety of reasons, it seems to me inesapably the employer's decision about whether Yoo's behavior in these regards violated the standards they have.

What I find perhaps most troubling for a deep believer in academic freedom is that Yoo's most infamous legal memos (in particular, the argument that congressional statutes cannot constrain the president's exercise of his powers as commander in chief) are blatantly, embarrassingly wrong under the law. 

I keep wondering what Berkeley (or Harvard or Princeton, etc.) would do if a professor of molecular biology had written a medical opinion while in government employ disclaiming the truth of evolution—and not only that, had continued to vigorously defend his rejection of evolution once returned to his full-time employment teaching university students a course in molecular biology. Is academic freedom the freedom not just to be wrong (which of course it is) but also to be, in this sense, false? Or perhaps academic freedom extends as far to continue the professor's employment but to insist that he retitle his course not Molecular Biology but rather something to the effect of Professor Smith's Imaginings of the Biological World?

Law, of course, is not science—as much as it might pain some of us to admit. It is difficult in the extreme to declare a legal proposition false with the same kind of certainty with which one can declare evolution a reality. But as one who clings (so to speak) to some belief in at least the semi-autonomy of law, it is at least painful to accept that one of the top law schools in the country embraces the idea that one of its professors could teach students a course in Introduction to Constitutional Law while advancing a view of the Constitution that is simply without support in text, history, logic, or life. Because law is not science, and because academic freedom is part of the kind of world I want, in the end I suppose I'll just have to learn to accept it. Would I pay for my kid to attend this law school? Not in a million years.


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