Scholarly Journals and Authors' Past Offensive Speech (2):

OK, now here's the other (equally accurate) version of the story.

2. The Yale Law Journal is embroiled in a controversy. The Journal accepted a paper for a symposium that was cowritten by Kiwi Camara. It turns out that four years, when Camara was a 17-year-old first-year Harvard Law School student, he posted something really offensive on a law school outline-exchange Web page: A couple of his outlines for classes (such as for property law, where one of the cases dealt with a restrictive covenant aimed at excluding blacks) referred to blacks as “nigs.” This caused a furor, especially in combination with two other Harvard Law School incidents that year, which involved professors rather than students (and which Camara wasn’t responsible for). Camara apologized, and said he didn’t endorse racist ideas, but his apology was quite puzzling. (This Harvard Law Record story contains the fullest account of the incident that I’ve found.)

Camara then graduated (at age 19, apparently the youngest Harvard Law School graduate in the school’s history), clerked for a federal court of appeals judge, and is now a research fellow at Stanford. After the Yale Law Journal controversy flared up, he wrote a further apology that seems quite straightforward and unambiguous. (I should note that the statement was circulated at Yale only on Monday, and many of those who have been calling for the offer of publication to be revoked hadn’t seen this.)

Forget then about all the issues I discussed in part 1. Camara is obviously very smart, but even very book-smart 17-year-olds sometimes say really dumb things. It’s hard for me to figure out exactly why he said what he said, but the charitable — and, I think, plausible — explanation is that he was engaging in the common 17-year-old pastime of trying to be edgy and shocking. Some kids do this by swearing, though this has lost its edge these days; Camara may have been trying to do it by casual use of epithets.

And charity, it seems to me, is appropriate here. Whatever Camara’s reasons for what he did then, he was 17. How many of us didn’t say anything at age 17 that we now realize was stupid, offensive, and quite possibly not even sincere? Yes, I realize that some things that kids do at 17 end up sticking with them; if you rape or rob someone, the rest of us need to protect ourselves against you (and the victim deserves some justice for this serious crime). Yet that’s an occasion for regret, and something we should avoid if we can. And when it comes to simply offensive statements, it seems to me that the loud condemnation from classmates, professors, and administrators that Camara endured after the original incident was likely a pretty good way to teach him the requisite lesson. It’s a fair bet that the lesson has been learned.

Camara has apologized. Four years have passed. He’s on the threshold of what could be a promising academic career. Set aside the academic institutional questions I discussed above. Isn’t it kind of cruel to try to sink him (and in the process, hurt his coauthor) because of something he said when he was 17, stupid, rude, and nasty as it may have been? Isn’t it kind of petty?

UPDATE: Links fixed; sorry they were broken.