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Defending the Harvard prof who’s defending an accused sexual predator

Harvard Law professor Ronald Sullivan is receiving significant criticism for his decision to defend Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul who stands accused of harassing and assaulting many women over the course of decades. But according to Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic, Sullivan is actually “upholding a vital civic good.”

The Harvard campus’s response to Sullivan’s decision has been at times vitriolic, Friedersdorf notes: Students have vandalized buildings there with graffiti such as “Down w Sullivan!” while a petition has circulated demanding Sullivan “end his role in residential life.”

But as Friedersdorf points out, Sullivan is actually “participating in a tradition older than the nation itself.” Noting the famous case of the Boston Massacre, in which John Adams (himself a Harvard graduate) defended the wildly unpopular and reviled British soldiers accused of killing five colonialists, Friedersdorf writes that, throughout American history, “criminal defense attorneys have endeavored to conserve and apply [Adams’s] principle” of defending hated and mistrusted defendants.

Pointing out that lawyers have faced similar criticism for defending communists, terrorists and child rapists, Friedersdorf writes:

If there is an inherent tension between upholding an “extremely important” civic norm––legal representation for even the most reviled—and nurturing undergraduates, it seems to me that Harvard ought to prioritize conserving the norm. But is it really inherently “incongruous” for Sullivan to defend a man like Weinstein in a criminal rape trial and endeavor to promote a safe environment for students, including victims of sexual assault, as a faculty dean?…

Students are indeed entitled to their feelings; and deans do serve at Harvard’s pleasure. But it isn’t clear to me that a student’s equal access to education is compromised by virtue of feeling uncomfortable reporting a sexual assault to a given dean, especially when there are many other Harvard officials to whom he or she can confide. In fact, Sullivan appointed Resident Dean Linda D.M. Chavers to serve “as the house’s ‘point person’ for sexual assault issues,” the Crimson reports. “Students will also be able to seek assistance from house tutors—all of whom have been briefed on resources for sexual misconduct issues—and … the Dean of Students Office and the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.”

Harvard “should teach students why generations of principled attorneys suffered and sacrificed” to uphold the principle of defending unpopular clients, Friedersdorf writes. People who slander and ostracize the lawyers who defend such clients “fail to grasp how much they risk as they work to further weaken the norm against punishing the lawyers of the reviled.”

Read the whole piece here. 

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