The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
[UPDATE: Here's a statement from NYU School of Law responding to this: "We agree that some of the imagery at this year's Fall Ball was inappropriate and it won't be used again. Our dean of students is always accessible for members of our student community to raise concerns and he will be meeting with those who did so in this matter."]
I thought I'd pass along two open letters sent by student groups at NYU School of Law (one of the top 6 law schools in the country, by most accounts). Obviously the student groups have the right to express their views; and at this point, their complaints aren't even calling for restriction of speech by other student groups, since they are complaining about an event put on by the law school administration. At the same time, in my experience these sorts of complaints are often the harbingers of broader movements, so I thought our readers might find them interesting.
I'm skeptical about the merits of the complaints, but here they are, so you can decide for yourselves (and, if my guess is right, get a taste of what you're likely to be hearing more of in coming years).
Also, while reading this, ask yourself: If "members of the mental health community and those whose lives have been touched by suicide" are so fragile (recall that the objection isn't just to the speech being supposedly offensive, but also to its being "triggering" and "harmful"), why would people want to employ them as lawyers?
Set aside for now the debate about the morality of disability discrimination and of bans on disability discrimination. Rightly or wrongly, such laws are often easy enough to avoid, and in any event client choices whether to hire outside lawyers are often not governed by antidiscrimination law. What are clients who aren't worried about antidiscrimination law, and aren't moved by the moral arguments about disability discrimination, likely to do if they agree that lawyers "whose lives have been touched by suicide" are so easily "trigger[ed]" and "harm[ed]"?
First, from the NYU Mental Health Law and Justice Association, sent late last week:
Dear Dean Jason Belk and Dean Trevor Morrison,
The Mental Health Law and Justice Association writes this open letter in order to express grave concern and outrage at the triggering, disrespectful, and harmful suicide imagery displayed at Fall Ball.
During last night's Fall Ball, which was organized by NYU Law's Office of Student Affairs, there were video projections on the windows inside of Greenberg Lounge of silhouetted people engaging in what we can only imagine were intended to be "spooky" activities. One of the images projected displayed a man dying by suicide. Because MHLJA follows the recommendations of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to not discuss suicide methods and firmly believes in publishing content that is safe for all members of our community, we will not provide any more details about the projection. However, members of our organization do have photographs of the images, should your administration need corroboration.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death on college campuses. Worldwide, someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds. For members of our community who have lost someone to suicide or who have had personal experiences, this topic is not a Halloween gimmick.
In addition to the suicide imagery, MHLJA condemns other projections displayed, which showed violence against women and interpersonal violence.
Our campus should be a safe space for all members of our community, particularly those who are most vulnerable. Violence and the difficult mental health challenges people face are not a joke, a gimmick, or a spectacle.
In addition to publicly expressing our concern, the Mental Health Law and Justice Association makes itself available to all members of our community who would like to find a safe and welcoming space to reflect on these issues. We encourage all who are interested to reach out to us by emailing [addresses omitted -EV]. We also encourage all students who may have been triggered yesterday to visit NYU Counseling and Wellness, located at 726 Broadway, 4th Floor, Suite 402. Walk-in hours are available today from 10am to 6pm, Saturday from 10am to 3pm, and Monday—Thursday 10am-8:30pm. At the end of this letter, you can also find a list of off-campus resources.
To all members of our community: If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please seek help. You are important to us and we want you to stay.
Because we believe that this unfortunate situation is the result of the stigma surrounding mental health and widespread misunderstanding of suicide, the Mental Health Law and Justice Association will be hosting an event on suicide prevention at the law school. Anyone who would like to be involved in helping us plan this event can contact [addresses omitted -EV].
Dean Belk and Dean Morrison, we urge you to issue a public apology to all members of our community who may have been triggered and ask that you make a commitment to ensuring that all future events, communications, and programs are verified to avoid harm to members of the mental health community and those whose lives have been touched by suicide. The Mental Health Law and Justice Association makes itself available to the administration to discuss how this can be achieved moving forward.
The Mental Health Law and Justice Association
And a follow-up e-mail from the Latino Law Students Association:
Dear NYU Law Community,
The Latino Law Students Association (LaLSA) would like to join our friends in the Mental Health Law and Justice Association (MHLJA) in condemning the distasteful and triggering suicide imagery that was displayed at NYU's Fall Ball. Like MHLJA, we believe that "our campus should be a safe space for all members of our community, particularly those who are most vulnerable. Violence and the difficult mental health challenges of people are not a joke, a gimmick, or a spectacle."
As a community, Latinxs* continue to experience significant rates of suicide and chronic depression. Our family, friends, and loved ones continue to face numerous barriers to accessing high-quality and culturally competent mental health care and treatment. These issues are particularly salient in the context of legal education and the broader legal profession. While 8% of law school students report experiencing depression prior to matriculation, an estimated 40% experience depression after three years. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to experience depression and have the 4th highest rate of suicide relative to other professions.
As an organization that values intersectionality, LaLSA seeks to recognize and affirm the ways in which our struggles as marginalized communities overlap and intersect. In that vein, we stand in solidarity with MHLJA and with all students whose lives have been touched by suicide.
We encourage all students who are seeking a safe space and interested in discussing these issues to attend MHLJA's next meeting this Wednesday, November 4th, at 7pm in the Review of Law and Social Change office, located in the basement of D'Agostino Hall.
The Latino Law Students Association (LaLSA)
*Because LaLSA is committed to fostering a safe and inclusive space for all members of our community, we use the term Latinx, pronounced "La-teen-ex", as a gender-neutral alternative to the usual gendered designation of Latino/a and Latin@.