The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Volokh Conspiracy

A Brief Note on the Recent Neomi Rao Controversy


As VC readers are aware, D.C. Circuit nominee Neomi Rao has been the subject of contoversy for op-eds she wrote twenty-five or so years ago while in college. I'm generally in favor of an informal statute of limitations on such things, and I've said so publicly even in situations where (a) the underlying behavior was far more outrageous and (b) I have no particular love for the individual involved. For example, when the Ralph Northam controversy broke, I tweeted, "Unpopular Opinion? Don't judge people by stupid, offensive things they did 30 plus years ago, unless such behavior has continued."

Also, as someone who wrote conservative columns for the school newspaper on my own very liberal college campus, I am especially alert to the temptation to express one's views a bit more sharply than one might otherwise, or even to sometimes express views for the sake of Devil's advocacy, in (perhaps immature) reaction to the stifling political correctness one faces. Nor, of course, does one write such articles thinking that twenty-five years later interest groups will be pouring over them looking for any indelicate language that can be taken out of context and used against you, and in fact in my case I usually dashed off my opinion pieces in twenty minutes or so when I felt the inspiration. I'm guessing if I read those pieces now, like Rao I'd occasionally cringe at how I expressed myself.

All that said, critics have often tendentiously described the content of Rao's writings, primarily by taking a infelicitous sentence or two out of context. For example, an article that has been described as anti-gay actually argues that the mainstream, left-wing gay group on campus should not ostracize a group of conservative gay students that had recently formed. Arguing for tolerance of conservative gay students by other gay students isn't the sort of thing that can reasonably be construed as "anti-gay."

Similarly, her article on a date rape allegation at Yale has been unfairly described as blaming women for date rape. Neomi has apologized for "insensitivity" in how she addressed the issue, but she didn't blame women for date rape; the "worst" thing she wrote was an offhand sentence noting that staying reasonably sober is a good way to reduce the risk of being assaulted. But blame? She stated in the beginning of the article that a male student who assaults a woman "should be held responsible" and later reiterated "that a man who rapes a drunk girl should be prosecuted."

NOTE: Neomi Rao is both a faculty colleague and a friend.