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Friday, August 09, 2019

MAGA student speaks (with minor edits)

So now we know. The MAGA-hat-sporting student that Gonzaga Prawfs Jeffrey Omari described is Austin Phelps, a rising 3L who has taken to the pages of the same ABA Journal to give his side of the story.

Phelps' version differs from Omari's in two important respects. Phelps makes it sound as if the MAGA hat was not a late-semester sartorial one-off; it sounds as if he had worn the hat and a Trump-Pence 2020 shirt at various points in the semester and that his laptop was festooned with similar stickers.* He also says Omari did not call on him "with the frequency that left-leaning students enjoyed." Omari described a conservative student who participated in class (enough to make his views known) but how had to that point "not  . . . donned any political paraphernalia in the classroom."

[*] Yet another reason to ban laptops.

He also complains about called out for wearing a build-the-wall t-shirt to his "university-affiliated internship," which he attributes to Omari's op-ed. The internship enforced a neutral (although never-before-enforced) rule banning t-shirts with slogans while at work.

The rest of the piece combines a defense of free speech, with an explanation for his support for the President (including filling two SCOTUS seats "with conservative posteriors," so glad he writes like a serious future lawyer). All of which reflects "my struggle" as a conservative law student--which might not have been the best choice of phrase, considering the context.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 9, 2019 at 06:23 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


In response to Anon's post at 8/10/19 at 2:00pm:

I'm increasingly frustrated by the phrase "power dynamics" being thrown around as though it's an informative proxy for a moral conclusion. The fact that there are differential power dynamics in a given context is, perhaps, *one reason* why one might take one course of action over another, but it's not so weighty a consideration that it ends the conversation. In many contexts, it's not even clear that just because there are formal differences in status, there's a live "power dynamic" at play. The reality is that most actual, concrete situations have so many variables that it's impossible to usefully identify a stable, unidirectional power dynamic that leads to a specific conclusion about what to do, or how to judge things.

For example, does public sentiment count as a power dynamic? Does the fact that a "weaker" party can post about an interaction on Twitter and thus turn the tables count? The phrase is used so frequently now, and has become so strained, that it's becoming an empty signalling device. And yet academics (especially liberals) seem to think it's the definitive consideration in a given interaction.

Posted by: GradStudent1 | Aug 11, 2019 8:11:20 PM

Well said.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 10, 2019 2:18:44 PM

What is striking about the student’s piece is he refuses to acknowledge the obvious power imbalance between white male MAGA fans and historically oppressed and marginalized groups. He likens wearing a MAGA hat to wearing a pride pen. The analogy completely misses the point of Omari’s piece. The student defended his choice of wearing hats and t-shirts without accepting or at least acknowledging why some people find them to be offensive. Wearing a pride pen is a plea for equality. MAGA is associated with calling Mexican immigrants rapists, dog whistles, telling American women of color to go back to their countries, and the repeated use of infestation to describe minorities and their communities. You don’t need inflammatory rhetoric to implement conservative policies. There are many Republicans who would would appoint conservative judges and cut taxes without the bombast and offensive rhetoric. MAGA embodies “lock her up” and “send her back”. If the student can’t admit that then he has no business being a lawyer. I certainly would not have written the original piece if I were Omari, but I certainly would hire this student after the response. In short, I wouldn’t hire either because they both lack judgment. Ironically both seem to have blind spots with respect to power dynamics. A professor blasting a student for wearing a MAGA hat publicly fails to recognize the power of his words on the students future.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 10, 2019 2:00:00 PM

This comment is a thought sparked by "Phelps is not entitled to control the inferences that other people are going to draw from his expressive choices."

Student writes>
Omari and other progressive activists pursue an objective that contrasts with the very purpose of the civil rights movement: suppressing the speech of those who are different from them.

This is my struggle and the struggle of the conservative law student. With an overwhelming majority of faculty falling left on the political spectrum, some will inevitably take strides to not only push their ideology on students, but to also ensure that conservative voices are not heard in the conversation.

Professor isolates the words "my struggle" and remarks it is a poor choice of phrase considering the context. This in turn catches a commentor's eye as snark.

This gives rise the question why would "my struggle" be a poor phrase to describe a struggle that the student feels? As basis is one context, controlled by Omari's position of preconceived bigotry, that MAGA hat wearers are popularly typecast as nazi's.

Another context of the student's response however, is far from nazism or bigotry. The student wrote about balanced view points in educational institutions and american values. In this context, there is no reason for "my struggle" to even be met with suspicion.

In the meantime, Prof. Wasserman is deliberate about his words and his attempts to be neutral. I think the remark is more an indication of nazism's inundation with pop culture than an actual reflection on the student's words or the context. As a side thought, it is an easy connection for those used to seeing connected words formed into certain meanings. On the other hand, for those who watch for other types of coded language, the connection between "my struggle as a conservative student" to mein kampf is disconnected if not jarring.

Which leads to my real take away from not only this exchange, but the maga in the class room situation as a whole. Omari believed the student was attacking him and presenting some sort of active bigotry- a not uncommon position when protester's say words are violence. The student believed he was just wearing clothes.

Information bubbles extends beyond preferred news networks and radio hosts. The internet enabled proliferation of information and depth of communities that come with it have brought us to a point where we may speak the same language but we do not hear the same words. While different perspectives are nothing new, the acceleration of divided meanings is occurring at a an increasing rate: not only from focus on different types of information, but the time at which the information is accessed as well. The 9am state of information can be wildly altered by 9pm (an of course, why even wait until 930am?), and those who are not deeply online are only catching bits and pieces of then old but still hyper evolving information. The disparity between the very online and the less online takes Ilya Somin's political ignorance and puts it on social steroids. The result is that some of us see much more coded language and dogwhistles than others, although those dog whistles exist in very niche communities until broad cast at large. See for example the recent identified ADL and SPLC hate symbols based on things like the "okay" hand sign.

Thank you for posting, I had already forgotten this story had happened. Indeed I expected the student to keep his head down and not respond.

Posted by: recentgrad | Aug 9, 2019 3:44:20 PM

I was not joking or poking fun--except for the banning laptops thing, since I don't need any more reasons to ban laptops. I have made very clear my disagreement with what Prof. Omari did, including the way in which he dragged the student into the controversy with an ill-advised piece. Phelps also presented a version of events which, if true, further call into question the actions of the professor and of others at the law school and university.

That said, is criticism of poor word choice in this piece fair game? Yes, if perhaps too easy. It is true Phelps was unfairly thrust into a public controversy. But he chose to respond in a public forum. I would criticize a student for writing that way when trying to be taken seriously.

As to your final point, I draw the opposite conclusion: I think both Omari and Phelps are entitled to feel what they are going to feel, but others are entitled to draw their conclusions from that and criticize it. I don't think MAGA necessarily is racist, although I understand people who do; I don't care either way. Phelps is not entitled to control the inferences that other people are going to draw from his expressive choices.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 9, 2019 10:09:14 AM

I like a good laugh as much as anyone, but I think Howard's decision to poke fun at the student's inartful word choices is unfortunate and (at the risk of over-moralizing) quite wrong. The student was dragged onto a national stage involuntarily by his own professor, who accused him, on the slimmest of evidence, of being a hateful bigot. Howard criticizes the student's use of "posterior" as a sort of violation of professional decorum. Sure, it's not a good word to use in this context, and it is too bad the student didn't have someone better-edit his draft prior to publication. But Omari surely violated a much more important norm of professionalism through his very ill-advised ABA article. The student's response, moreover, strikes me as a far better example, compared to Omari's histrionics, of the kind of reasoned and measured argumentation that we expect of lawyers. It's not perfect, and perhaps not entirely convincing to some of us, but for lord's sake, he's just a 3L, and one inappropriately thrust into a difficult public-relations situation. To add on a Hitler joke, as Howard does, is especially unfair, as it promotes, even if just surreptitiously, Omari's original slander (in the informal sense of the word), reinforcing the idea that the student is in fact a bigot. Finally, I think it is unfair to take Omari's subjective sense of isolation more seriously than the student's. They are both deserving of a certain kind of respect, perhaps understood as an assumption of felt truth, even if we are perfectly entitled to judge for ourselves whether what is subjectively felt is objectively reasonable.

Posted by: Jason Yackee | Aug 9, 2019 8:57:01 AM

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