Day of doom

BY RAFFI MELKONIAN

I’m kind of ashamed to admit it, but I used one of those law school applicant discussion boards back when I was applying to school three years ago. The one thing that makes me feel better about the whole affair is that I’m sure I’m not the only one so besmirched on this campus. Obviously, many law school applicants (and students) are world-class neurotics, and it makes us feel better to try to exert control over a fundamentally uncontrollable process – who precisely is getting in to the schools we want? How do we compare? And most important of all, when are we going to hear? Nor do we suddenly get more civilized once in school – after all, the Greedy Clerks discussion board for federal clerks and applicants is no less active.

Of course, I always noticed a lot of extraneous chatter on the discussion board I used. Most of it was about things you expect students to talk about – dating, for example – but some was really offensive and nasty.

This week, though, there’s been a debate among some law professors – writing online – about whether this kind of discussion board ought to be cleaned up. I checked the most popular one, and it’s no surprise that people are up in arms. Undeniably, the board has gotten pretty bad in a lot of ways, including a startling quantity of the worst sort of racism and anti-Semitism. As much as I share the protestors’ disgust with the speech involved, however, cleaning up such a web site is a bad idea, for two reasons.

First, pressuring the site administrators to clean up the discussion board by employing a software filter is the equivalent of sweeping a potentially serious problem under the carpet. From the beginnings of free speech theory, people have realized that one of the main benefits of allowing people to voice even odious opinions publicly is that those who disagree are confronted with the fact that the minority opinion does actually exist. If there are law students who feel comfortable using the kind of racial epithets contained on the site, even under the thin blanket of internet anonymity, even as a stupid sort of shocking joke, those of us who find such speech disgusting should want to know about it. It’s all very easy to assume that the great persuasive battles in terms of respect and civility have been won. Displays such as those on the discussion board at issue demonstrate that there might be work left to be done.

Second, just as with all (even private) controls on expression, stifling evil speech might chill other speech that is really useful and good. The overwhelming benefit of the discussion board, as I remember it, was that traffic was high, knowledgeable people abundant, and answers to questions quick. Every effort made to censor discussion was quickly discovered to be over-broad, and instead of leaving a clean board, changes made to get rid of the racists drove away others as well. But those kinds of discussion boards are vital for law applicants trying to figure their way out through a tough process, and especially those without specialized institutional support – my British alma mater, for example, had no advising services, so I relied heavily on internet resources to organize myself. If we believe in expanding this school’s diversity across geography and social status as well as race, tools like admittedly vulgar Internet boards are crucial in leveling the playing field of applicant information. After all, the details that some people know, and others don’t, are important – and if an active, unfettered, discussion board can spread that kind of previously rare knowledge, it’s a good thing.

I should be clear – I don’t like racists, and I don’t like anti-Semites. Armenians, like myself, have had enough experience of such people to know better. But people with offensive opinions do exist, and from the evidence provided by the discussion board, some may even be among us. Sending those people underground isn’t a good way to solve this problem. Free speech, even when the censoring party isn’t the government, is generally preferable to restricted speech – and however uncomfortable such offensive language might make us, law school applicant discussion boards aren’t an exception to that general rule.

Raffi Melkonian’s posts on law school Internet discussion boards are neither racist nor anti-semitic.

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