The Volokh Conspiracy

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Law Professor Skipped Teaching Plessy v. Ferguson, Edited Dred Scott to Two Paragraphs

“I wasn’t comfortable giving [Taney's] words to my students because I was afraid it would hurt them and destroy the kind of community I want to foster in class.”


Professor Matthew Steilen (Buffalo) skipped teaching Plessy v. Ferguson, and edited Dred Scott down to two paragraphs. Jeannie Suk Gersen wrote about his decision in the New Yorker:

Matthew Steilen, a law professor at the University at Buffalo, launched the Twitter thread and advocated for editing the case down to a minimalistic page or so, to omit text that is "so gratuitously insulting and demeaning." He wondered whether assigning that material is asking students "to relive the humiliation of Taney's language as evidence of his doctrine of white supremacy." . . .

Steilen, who wrote the initial tweet about teaching the Dred Scott case, doesn't disagree with these principles and has worked to add more content on slavery and the Civil War in his course. But, he told me, "George Floyd has changed everything. . . . I wasn't sure I could muster the moral authority to stand up there and teach this case." He explained that omitting it entirely would be "a bridge too far," but he thought it best to assign just "two paragraphs and move on." He said, "Taney is making the case that Black people who were enslaved were never part of the people of the United States and could never be citizens. . . . It's just painful. I'm white and I'm going to stand up there and talk with the students, including Black students, about this stuff? I would be dragging them through stuff that was hurtful to them. . . . It just felt indefensible." Steilen feels that Taney's language "gratuitously traumatizes" readers: "I wasn't comfortable giving his words to my students because I was afraid it would hurt them and destroy the kind of community I want to foster in class." This year, Steilen also skipped teaching Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that segregation did not imply Black people's inferiority, and instead only mentioned its ideas in discussing Brown v. Board of Education, which overruled it.

Steilen's decision was inevitable. If law schools start from the en vogue premise that students should be shielded from material that may be "traumatizing" or "hurtful" or "painful," then this pedagogy makes eminent sense. I vigorously disagree with this premise. Educators cannot skip foundational material to avoid imparting pain or trauma.

A study in constitutional law is woefully incomplete without Dred Scott and Plessy. I devote an entire class to each case. I wish I could do more, but there is not enough time. These classes are not pleasant. Often emotions flare. Voices are raised. Students become disillusioned. But the students learn important lessons. Usually by this point in the semester, the character of the class is formed.

I understand that some criminal law professors no longer teach the law of rape. And now, some constitutional law professors will no longer teach about slavery and segregation. Entire chunks of the constitutional canon will be cancelled. Prigg. Dred Scott. The Civil Rights Cases. Plessy. I fear Steilen's decision will not be isolated. Other professors likely reached the same conclusion. Randy and I continue to develop a book project about slavery and the Constitution. If professors simply stop teaching the subject, our work becomes an even more important supplement.