Anyone who followed Harvard lawprof Laurence Tribe on twitter had to wonder what he was thinking when he twitted “Louise Mensch is right.” Was he using his scholarly cred to validate a nonsensical conspiracy theorist? Did he lose his mind?
This short symposium contribution discusses the virtues and the vices of law professors participating in a now-popular form of public discourse: Twitter. It also offers some tentative thoughts on what professional norms ought to apply to law professors who identify themselves as law professors on Twitter. Specifically, it suggests that law professors should assume that, each time they tweet about a legal issue, they are making an implicit claim to expertise about that issue. It also suggests that law professors who participate on Twitter should do so primarily to help promote reasoned debate.
Some of us see academics are living in an Ivory Tower. Apparently, academics see themselves bringing the Ivory Tower to wherever they are at the moment. Do lawprofs not get to have opinions on myriad subjects and issues, express their views even if they’re just hot takes, enjoy the occasional joke or have some fun and camaraderie, like us groundlings?
There’s an insufferable pretentiousness to the notion that academics don’t get to hang around with the “ordinary” folk because they represent an intellectual elite. One can almost hear the officious sniffling as they look down their noses at the ignorant masses.
It’s curious that Hessick has decided to wade into the cesspool of twitter. Her experience there is limited, She joined twitter in March, 2015 and has fewer than 6,000 twits. In twitter terms, she’s barely past n00b stage.* She brings neither institutional memory nor significant personal experience to her normative views of propriety. I don’t follow her on twitter, though I’ve seen her twits on occasion.**
Essentially, her paper is her “hot take” on how prawfs who have been there before her should behave now that there are new tone police in town.
There are a number of reasons that a law professor might want to post on Twitter. As compared to the other platforms available to law professors, Twitter has distinct advantages as a method of communication with other law professors and with the public more generally. Twitter allows law professors to broaden the reach of their ideas, increase their professional profiles, and communicate more easily and more quickly than other media.
Aside from the need to tell other people why they want to do what they want to do, a curiosity in itself, it’s notable that Hessick fails to include the possibility that people, who happen to teach at law schools, just want to have some fun, hang around with other people, let their extremely tight bun down and enjoy rubbing elbows with the common people. Is there anything wrong with that? Is there no place where “scholars” get to be just like anyone else?
The problem is that Hessick’s view of twitter is constrained by academic purposes, enhancement of scholarly reputation and dissemination of scholarly ideas, rather than just people twitting with other people for the hell of it. That a person on twitter is a lawprof doesn’t mean they sleep in a cap and gown. Some go to football games. Some drink a pint in a tavern. Some twit. Some don’t view their every action, every utterance, as an extension of their scholarly goals and purposes, with the requisite scholarly rules applying.
But the issue is that they are lawprofs. Their bios say so. Their handles often say so as well. Their students see their twits. Other lawprofs see their twits. The public, knowing they’re lawprofs, see their twits. Much as an academic may want to be able to play on twitter, their titles remain intact and their twits reflect on them, their schools and the academy.
Participating on Twitter allows a law professor to share her ideas and increase her
professional profile more easily than publishing traditional scholarship and attending
conferences. But when a law professor identifies herself on Twitter as a law professor, her
behavior on the platform reflects not only on her, but also on her law school and on the legal
academy as a whole.
Must they be that buttoned up? Are they not allowed to be prawfs and people too? Remember Tribe, whose scholarly reputation as a Harvard constitutional law professor gives his opinions on legal issues enormous weight. Does that mean the Marshal of the Supreme Court really will be arresting Donald Trump for a FISA indictment, as Louise Mensch claims? If Tribe validates her, she can’t be totally bonkers, right?
I have two suggested norms for law professors who tweet: First, law professors should assume that, each time they tweet about a legal issue, they are making an implicit claim to expertise about that issue. Second, professors who participate on Twitter should do so primarily to help promote reasoned debate.
Some people can’t imagine driving on a road without clear lines. Hessick’s concerns about academics not using their scholarly cred to spread misinformation are well-founded. But her solution is misdirected overkill. While wearing her mortar board at all times may bring her comfort, other academics are witty, interesting, and just as entitled to engage in discussions of breaking news, legal and political issues, fun stuff, outrageous stuff, as anyone else. And they often have a great deal to contribute, even if it falls a sniffle or two shy of a law review article.
Does that mean academics get to enjoy the benefit of scholarly cred, lording it over the groundlings as faux experts? Hardly. As with all social media, the solution is the medium. If some academic offers a twit that’s wrong, some other academic can challenge it, correct it. It’s the internet. Being wrong has always been at its core, as has correcting someone on the internet. That’s how real people express their views and others give them a smack when they believe they’re wrong. If a prawf twits something stupid, another prawf can call her out on it. If that’s too bold and unseemly for a prawf, the problem isn’t twitter, but lack of intellectual honesty and fortitude.
Disagreement isn’t a flaw, but a feature. Someone with institutional memory of the internet, of the twitters, would know this. But then, there are always people trying to impose rules on the unruly, as they can’t bear the idea of people, even academics, just having some fun.
*For comparison purposes, I’ve been on twitter since 2008.
**While Hessick has some interesting twits, my sense is that she would feel far more comfortable using a medium that allows for 240 pages than 240 characters.