A New Civility Standard

Prof. Brian Leiter is apparently grossly offended that an attorney sent him an email stating “You’re a ‘Law and ______’ Professor, not a lawyer.  How would you know how to ‘think like a lawyer’?”  Leiter not only sent his correspondent a pointed lengthy response criticizing his “impertinent,” “juvenile,” and “insolent” email,  but added at the end that “I will be sure to send a copy of this entire correspondence to the name partners of your firm,” suggesting that the attorney should be punished, or at least formally reprimanded.

Of course, being a philosopher who values reason and consistency, I’m sure Prof. Leiter would seek to have the same standard of civility applied to everyone, including himself.  And writing “how would you know how to ‘think like a lawyer?’” in private correspondence, by a rather anonymous chap no less, seems relatively tame compared to some of what gets stated publicly in the blogosphere by prominent individuals, such as calling one’s professional colleagues “morally deranged,” “crazies“, “instaignorance”, and so forth and so on–the kind of statements Leiter, certainly henceforth, would never, ever make.  But if he does, you know whom to contact to complain about “impertinent,” “insolent,” and “juvenile” postings.

Of course, unlike young attorneys, tenured law professors are largely immune from sanctions when engaging in speech related to public issues.  But that, of course, wouldn’t stop any upstanding professor from voluntarily waiving such protections and allowing himself to be penalized for the same kind of conduct he would want others punished for, now would it?  Thanks to Brian’s standard-setting, we can now look forward to a much more civil blogosphere.

UPDATE: Here is Leiter’s response, in full:

Meanwhile, the poster boy for the Dunning-Kruger Effect, David Bernstein, thinks this is all about civility and manners as opposed to stupidity and insolence–and, more seriously, in the case of some of the others, libel and malicious harassment.   I’m sure Bernstein will  do a great job moderating comments on his intervention to insure his commitment to civility!  For my own views on civility, see this short essay.

Right, because calling a professional colleague “the poster boy for the Dunning-Kruger Effect” is neither stupid nor insolent (putting aside the hairsplitting question of what exactly separates incivility from insolence). Indeed, it’s wise and respectful!

I have a challenge for Prof. Leiter.  Let’s take the adjectives with which he has described the correspondence that prompted this round: juvenile, impertinent, and insolent.  Let’s get a panel of three neutral arbitrators, perhaps chosen from ABA ethics committees.  And let’s take some of Leiter’s choicer blog posts, and let the arbitrators decide whether his posts meet the accepted definition of juvenile, impertinent, and insolent.  (We can start with the one quoted above, though that’s a relatively tame one by his standards).  And since he obviously thinks there should be professional consequences for juvenile, impertinent, and insolent writings, if the arbitrators agree that his posts meet the definition for which he chose to try to humiliate and punish his hapless correspondent, he’ll take unpaid leave from Chicago for a year.

Obviously, I don’t expect him to take the offer.  It would be foolhardy, and he’s no fool.  It’s one thing to try to provoke professional sanction against a hapless young lawyer who sent a single admittedly rude email.  It’s another to risk professional consequences to oneself, for one’s  own much more significant long-term pattern and practice of juvenile, impertinent, insolent, and may I add obnoxious, public internet blog postings.

UPDATE: More from Prof. Jacobson and Prof. Campos.