Scholarly Journals and Authors' Past Offensive Speech (1):

1. The Yale Law Journal is embroiled in a controversy. The Journal accepted a paper for a symposium; but now it turns out that four years ago, a coauthor of the paper made what certainly seems like a racist statement. (For whatever it’s worth, the paper has nothing to do with race.)

Should the Journal withdraw the offer? Some argue yes; the Journal has said no. It seems to me the Journal is absolutely right. The same should apply when journals consider papers written by people who have expressed Communist sympathies, or who praise terrorists, or who oppose or defend homosexuality, or who offend our sensibilities in countless other ways.

Academic journals are special institutions, with a special mission: the publication of ideas that advance knowledge in their field. To operate best, it seems to me, they should be committed single-mindedly to that goal. They may consider the quality of the paper (and quality in a broad sense, including soundness, novelty, relevance to hot current debates, relevance to timeless issues, accessibility, and the like). They may even consider the author’s credentials, when they think these credentials are a proxy for the paper’s likely merit, and when a proxy is needed. They may also consider the author’s past misconduct when it may influence the quality of a paper; for instance, they may decline to spend time double-checking a paper written by someone who has a reputation for scholarly fraud.

But they shouldn’t consider the author’s past offensiveness, or the reprehensibleness of the ideas he expresses outside the paper. It’s about getting ideas out to the readers, not about the moral character of the writer (or at least it should be about it). If a new discovery by transistor discoverer William Shockley (who was a racist) adds to our store of knowledge about electronics, or Noam Chomsky’s new linguistics work adds to our store of knowledge about linguistics, it shouldn’t matter what you think of the authors’ ideas outside those papers.

This needn’t be the norm for all fields of human endeavor. When we choose dinner guests, we can quite rightly consider their characters, including their viewpoints; likewise when we choose coauthors. Businesses who are hiring people (e.g., pitchmen or entertainers) whose effectiveness rests partly on public goodwill may consider whether an applicant has done things that have cost him such goodwill. Even academic institutions may — and sometimes should — consider the character of those whom they choose to honor through special honors and awards. And there are even plausible arguments for considering the character of professors, who after all need to judge students fairly, serve as role models for them, and compose fair-minded and accurate lectures with minimal administrative supervision (though I think that on balance universities ought to avoid considering professor’s ideologies, despite these concerns).

But the learned journal is a different institution. Its purpose isn’t conviviality, collegiality, moneymaking, role modeling, or honoring the honorable. It’s an honor to publish in the Yale Law Journal, but the Journal doesn’t publish articles in order to honor people; publication of article doesn’t mean approbation of the author. Its editors should stick to evaluating ideas in an attempt to advance knowledge, and leave evaluating authors’ characters to others.

The Journal’s Editor-in-Chief also pointed out some important practical reasons justifying his decision not to retract the offer: (1) Evaluating authors’ characters requires journals to get into the business of investigating charges and responses. (“In this case, the central facts of the incident involving Camara are uncontested, but they might not be in other circumstances.”) (2) The exception would be hard to limit just to racist epithets, but is likely to grow to include other material that many find offensive. (3) If the Journal excludes some authors for their bad outside-the-article ideas, this would suggest that it’s endorsing the outside ideology of those authors whom it does publish. Yet the main point, it seems to me, is maintaining a clear focus on one main goal — the publication of ideas that advance the progress of knowledge.

UPDATE: Links fixed; sorry they were broken.

UPDATE: See also this post by Dan Markel on Prawfsblawg, which I largely agree with (though I'd go further than he would, and say that, yes, "the YLJ (or some comparable journal in philosophy and social thought) should publish Heidegger simply because of the work's contributions," even though Heidegger was a Nazi. (I also agree that if there were a narrow exception for Nazis, Stalinists, and the like, this author -- even if he were sincere and unrepentant, which seems unlikely here -- is very far from that exception; but of course the difficulty with narrow exceptions for Nazis and Stalinists is that they rarely stay narrow.)