ACLU Says Harvard 'Sacrificed Principles Central to Our Legal System' When It Fired Ron Sullivan

The civil liberties giant defends a law professor who took on Harvey Weinstein as a client.


The American Civil Liberties Union has come to the defense of Harvard law professor Ronald Sullivan, who recently lost his position as faculty dean of Winthrop House after activist students demanded his ouster.

Many of these students were furious that Sullivan—a celebrated expert on criminal justice reform who has represented many controversial clients in the past—joined the defense team of accused rapist Harvey Weinstein. They contended that Sullivan's actions were "deeply trauma-inducing" for survivors of sexual violence and had the effect of making Winthrop House an unsafe place.

It was a grave mistake for Harvard to capitulate to the students' demands, write ACLU Legal Director David Cole and ACLU–Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose:

The ACLU is committed to fighting sexual assault, in the workplace, the home, on campus, and in the world at large. At the same time, Weinstein, like every person accused of a crime, is presumed innocent in his criminal case unless he pleads or is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Commitment to that principle, and to the system mandated by our Constitution, means we are equally devoted to the principle that every criminal defendant, no matter how vilified, no matter how innocent or guilty, and no matter how poor or rich, deserves a lawyer. If the latter principle is to be respected, it is essential that society not conflate a criminal defense lawyer's representation with his or her client's acts….

The student protests at Harvard provided the institution with an opportunity. It could have used the incident as a teachable moment about the importance of criminal defense in our society as well as about the importance of tolerance on a campus of higher learning. It could have demonstrated that there is a fundamental distinction between a lawyer and his clients—and that our system of rights depends on that distinction. Instead, it sacrificed principle in an apparent quest for an easy way out.

What lesson does that teach?

I've previously expressed concern that the ACLU may be retreating from some of its previously ironclad commitments to defend free speech and due process when these principles come into conflict with the priorities of the new intersectional left, which is less thrilled about extending legal protections to people they dislike. But the organization's defense of Sullivan is a powerful counterexample, and I couldn't be happier that Cole and Rose decided to weigh in this way.