The successful NYU Law Forum, initiated this year by Vice Dean Barry Friedman, began the semester with headline-grabbing topics such as universal health care, wartime detention, and the Supreme Court’s upcoming term. For its last installment of the fall, however, on November 18 a panel of faculty and students looked inward, at their conduct in the classroom. “Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Voicing Issues of Difference and Critical Perspectives in the Classroom and Everywhere Else” featured Inez Milholland Professor of Civil Liberties Burt Neuborne, Visiting Professor Erin Murphy, Maribel Hernandez ’10, Helam Gebremariam ’10, and psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Tillinghast ’85, debating and offering advice to a central question: How do students set about voicing issues of difference, especially when they feel that they have little or no support from many their fellow students and the wider community?

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Friedman began the event by inviting four students from the audience to describe barriers to speaking openly in the classroom. Their issues included the fear that they are wasting class time by asking questions about how race, gender, or class relates to classroom topics; seeing their classmates roll their eyes at the mention of these topics; and feeling that professors and curriculums give students little room to raise these issues.

Neuborne, who came to the Law School in 1972, when the school was almost completely populated by white male students, he said, stressed that incorporating issues of difference and diversity into the law school experience cannot simply be about what goes on inside the classroom. There is only so much time, he said, and professors must balance such critical discussions with making sure that students fully understand the law. “When I stand up in front of a class—a large diverse class now, thank goodness—that has diverse ends and diverse ambitions and diverse backgrounds, my primary responsibility is to arm them with the tools to go out and be very effective lawyers,” Neuborne said. In order to do this, Neuborne said, the students must be taught the existing norms of society and law so that they can use those norms as tools when they leave law school: “Before you can critique these norms terribly well, you need to know them very well.”

Hernandez and Gebremariam noted that confronting this topic effectively will rely on the contribution of students, faculty, and administrators. The panel and audience acknowledged the great value of student groups like the Coalition for Legal Recruiting (CoLR) and OUTLAW, and added that students outside of such groups also need to be involved. As one commenter said, if these issues are only voiced within the confines of specific classes or specific students groups, a wider conversation and shift in attitude is unlikely to occur. One thing students can do: “Don’t be afraid to speak up, don’t be afraid to say what you need to say,” Gebremariam said. “We should support each other—don’t be the kid who rolls their eyes.”

Students also discussed curriculum changes that could help: adding critical seminars; encouraging professors to include critical discussions of diversity in their classes; and introducing topics of diversity at orientation. Neuborne encouraged students to continue to pass along supplemental readings that they find in their research, not just to fellow students, but to professors.

Visiting Professor Ian Haney-Lopez spoke last from the audience, and encouraged students to speak up, “because there are real issues of justice involved. Because there are real issues of power. Because these do need to be addressed so that you all know you’re not crazy, and so your classmates know that they’re not crazy” said Haney-Lopez. “This is the place to learn how to be oppositional, because if you don’t learn it here, you’re not going to learn it once you become lawyers.”

Watch the full recording of the event (1 h 17 m):

Posted December 1, 2009