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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Should Professors Disclose Political Opinion to Students?

LbjJames Poniewozik argues in his recent column in Time that journalists should publicly disclose their voting records. It has long been sacrosanct for reporters to avoid ever revealing their political preferences or party affiliations. Poniewozik’s challenge to this longstanding dogma makes for fascinating reading. Before reading his piece, I had always figured, without thinking about it too much, that reporters’ public profession of agnosticism was a good idea. Now, I still do, but I admit Poniewozik’s piece has forced me to ask myself why.

His argument is that disclosing political preferences would make political journalism more trustworthy. I’m dubious. But it is interesting to import the questions he raises into our own circumstance, as law teachers.

How should law professors deal with disclosing political convictions in the classroom? At the lectern, the question is usually not whom you prefer for president, but which side you take in politicized legal controversies – tort reform, the exclusionary rule, tenants’ rights, the constitutional right to abortion, etc.

Should law professors come clean to students on issues such as these?

For myself, in Torts and my other classes, I tend toward disclosure. But I try not to be too quick about it – I don’t want my side-taking to preempt good class discussion. But disclosure has a downside. As soon as I disclose my beliefs in the name of intellectual honesty, I worry about crossing the line to using class as a platform for spouting opinion.

And that, I suppose, is why I am comfortable with campaign beat-reporters veiling their own politics. It’s not that we, the readers, shouldn’t have access to the information. It’s that reporters, through the exercise of carefully keeping their politics private, engage in a kind of discipline and self-restraint that, at least potentially, makes them better reporters.

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on March 26, 2008 at 05:10 PM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink

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I don't teach Con Law, so I don't have to deal with many real hot button issues. But my experience in other classes has been that, when I disclose to students where I come down on disputed issues, the conversation stops. Students are understandably reluctant to disagree with a professor on a policy issue. So I try not to do it.

But there are times when students really don't like that there's no resolution to an issue, and it doesn't satisfy them to say "some courts say X, others say Y, and both are equally good approaches." So I will (reluctantly) sometimes finish a section by saying that authorities obviously are split, and there are arguments available to people at various points on the spectrum, but that I find X or Y most persuasive.

Posted by: Mark | Mar 26, 2008 5:41:50 PM

I think the question of whether or not a prawf should disclose their fiew on most "politicized legal controversies" is pretty unimportant. Generally speaking, most prawfs have the same views on most of those controversies (and if you have a unique or unexpected viewpoint on something, I assume you have published or will be publishing that viewpoint). If you are a conservative or libertarian prawf, and therefore take a different view on the controversy, your students probably already know it.

Posted by: JP | Mar 27, 2008 6:25:26 PM

Many (though far from all) profs' political views are obvious from their website-posted resume or bio, which I know some students skim out of idle curiosity. My experience always has been, though, that if you give all sides a fair shake, students respect that and don't care what your views are. On the flip side, if you give short shrift to the other side, all the "disclosure" in the world won't save you from the (appropriate) wrath of your students.

Posted by: Scott Moss | Mar 27, 2008 6:33:20 PM

I had a student remind me that voter registration records (specifically party affiliations) are available on Lexis/Nexis. If a student wants to "know" a prof's party affiliation for sure, they will find out (that and a whole lot more, I suppose). Thoughtful post, Eric, and helpful comments from Scott Moss and others above.

Posted by: Bridget Crawford | Mar 27, 2008 11:57:39 PM

Students can figure these things out if they want, of course. But in class, when I decide to drop neutrality and take a normative view, I am as likely to argue for a position I think is completely and utterly wrong than a position that I genuinely think is right. I want students to think, not to agree with me.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Mar 28, 2008 8:16:27 PM

And that, I suppose, is why I am comfortable with campaign beat-reporters veiling their own politics. It’s not that we, the readers, shouldn’t have access to the information. It’s that reporters, through the exercise of carefully keeping their politics private, engage in a kind of discipline and self-restraint that, at least potentially, makes them better reporters.

In other words, they would be more biased if they were open about being Democrats. I think that's probably right.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Mar 28, 2008 8:20:01 PM

I try and reassure my students that agreeing with me is not going to get them anywhere, and actually I respect those who take me on more. At the same time, I tell them that I respect them too much to not reveal my biases, and reveal them when they are pertinent to the discussion.

Of course, I hate both major parties, almost all candidates, and gore every ox that comes my way... so I think that makes it a little easier on me.

I'm a registered republican so that I can vote in R primaries, and I am voting for Obama. I agree politically with the D party most of the time, but I prefer to hang out with Republicans. Lefties have no sense of humor, and are really lame to drink with.

Posted by: Marc J. Randazza | Mar 30, 2008 12:16:52 AM

>I try and reassure my students that agreeing with me is not going to get
>them anywhere, and actually I respect those who take me on more. At the
>same time, I tell them that I respect them too much to not reveal my
>biases, and reveal them when they are pertinent to the discussion.

If only you had been my con-law professor. Instead, I had someone who as his parting gift before accepting a position as dean of a top law school put this question on the final (I'm paraphrasing from memory, though I could likely locate the exact text upon request):

Assume you are a legislative aid. Explain how you would convince your boss from a moral (rather than a legal) point of view that it is imperative that he vote in favor of same sex marriage.

Posted by: Shmilda | Mar 31, 2008 10:42:53 AM

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