The Volokh Conspiracy

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

In Defense of CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek


In 2018, students at CUNY Law School tried to shut down my lecture on free speech. Prior to the event, Dean Mary Lu Bilek refused to cancel the event. But after my event, she said the "non-violent, limited protest was a reasonable exercise of protected free speech, and it did not violate any university policy."

Dean Bilek never reached out to me. Indeed, not a single faculty member CUNY ever said a word to me. I briefly considered litigation, but ultimately decided against it. Based on my analysis of the events, the Dean followed controlling First Amendment caselaw, albeit grudgingly. I did submit requests under New York's Freedom of Information Law. Nothing meaningful turned up. I know that Bilek retained a crisis management firm, but nothing of substance was discussed over email. I let the matter go.

A few months later I attended a small conference of law professors. Dean Bilek was there. I walked over to her and introduced myself. She said hello, pretended not to know me, and briskly walked away. I surmised that she was in a tough spot. I understood the type of institution she taught in. And I recognized that if she showed me even the slightest courtesy, her students would rebel. I can't fathom what teaching at CUNY Law is like.

I gave Dean Bilek very little thought over the past few years. Fast forward to the present. By now, Dean Bilek's self-cancellation has made national headlines. I encourage you to read the summary in the New York Times. I won't even try to summarize the surreal circumstances. I'll admit it. I had a brief moment of schadenfreude, but then my libertarian wheels started spinning, and I rallied to her cause.

I write in defense of Mary Lu Bilek. I truly feel bad for her. Dean Bilek spent her career promoting the cause of social justice and anti-racism. She did everything in her power to address the unique concerns of the CUNY community. But then she slipped. Once. She made a mistake. Who knows why she said what she said. Maybe she was having a bad day. Maybe she was under a lot of stress. Maybe she thought she was making a more profound point that was lost in translation. Whatever the reason, she said what she said.

That one comment ruined her career. In our current culture, there is no room for error. And, no one knows ex ante what those errors will be. We live in precarious times. There is no longer any margin of errors. Apologies are meaningless. If a dyed-in-the-wool progressive can be shunned for a single errant comment, none of us are safe. I fear the legal academy will become something of a circular firing squad. Anyone who crosses an ill-defined line will be subject to summary cancellation. And anyone who disagrees with that sentence will be charged with bystander liability. At bottom, the most aggrieved students will have the power to control any aspect of the institution. Universities will no longer be places where truth and knowledge can be pursued. Rather, Universities will first and foremost be designed to pursue social justice, as defined by the vacillating whims of societal revolution. Dissidents will be excluded.

I'm sorry we had to witness Bilek's decanal self-immolation. But I must defend her, even if she wouldn't defend me.