Published 8:03 AM EDT May 15, 2019
When I’m on the side of defending Harvey Weinstein, we are on all-new ground.
Yet I am, in the sense that I don’t think Harvard should have fired a faculty dean for providing legal counsel to this loathsome person.
Law professor Ronald S. Sullivan has lost his position at Winthrop House, where undergrads didn’t want to live and eat with, much less be mentored by, someone representing a world-class predator in court. (On Monday, Sullivan announced that he’s leaving Weinstein’s defense team anyway, because an upcoming trial would conflict with his class schedule — but he's still available for advice and consultation.)
Yes, his former client has been credibly accused of serious crimes against generations of Hollywood actresses. The damage this one man has inflicted must make him a role model for psychopaths the world over.
But in our country, serial killers and terrorists and rapists, too, are entitled to the kind of defense that in theory separates us from, say, the Philippines, where Rodrigo Duterte has drug dealers murdered. Or from Saudi Arabia, where criticism is answered with assassination. In Hungary, you can be fired for dissenting views; in American academia, that’s not supposed to happen.
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When today’s Harvard students get their turn to run the world, will they know that? I’m glad they’re so anti-rape that they don’t feel like taking life lessons from someone who thinks that behavior is defensible.
Weinstein deserves a fair trial
But Weinstein must be defended all the same. And even the argument that doing so disqualifies Sullivan as a guide to students is wrong. For one thing, only a fair trial and vigorous defense will make possible the long incarceration I’m hoping for. Beyond that, what could be more fundamental to American values than those rights?
Danukshi A.K. Mudannayake, a student leading the campaign against Sullivan, started a petition that called his work for the movie producer “deeply trauma-inducing" and questioned whether he really does "value the safety of the students he lives with in Winthrop House."
Sullivan no more supports rape by representing Weinstein than Leslie Abramson, mother of two, supported patricide by representing the Menendez brothers. He’s the same person as when he represented Michael Brown's relatives in their lawsuit against Ferguson, Missouri. And as when he’s gotten thousands of wrongfully incarcerated people set free.
Even in our most glancing interactions, online and in real life, we shun and self-segregate and want to be protected from those who are in our view in the wrong. Not only on existential issues, either.
Harvard should value diversity and due process
Recently, I went to a party with my mother in Indiana. Are you the Republican daughter? a friend of hers asked me. Are you the one we like? I guess that would be a no and a no, ma’am. Others asked me why CNN commentators are allowed to lie, why newspapers are all so terrible these days, and whether crazy people should really have a forum for crazy ideas like the Green New Deal. From Evansville to Cambridge, absolutists are free of self-doubt.
But Harvard leaders, you don’t have the luxury of some ladies in Derby Day hats inside the Fox News bubble. You have a responsibility to diversity of thought, and to reinforcing the importance of due process. Even for Harvey Weinstein. Even when students are sitting in, calling out and very, very unhappy.
I keep reading that Sullivan and his wife, law school lecturer Stephanie Robinson, who were Harvard’s first African American faculty deans, are not really out because of Weinstein, but because of complaints that go back several years. If that’s true, then the lesson is that grudges well nursed will pay off eventually.
As in-an-uproar as Winthrop House has been, Harvard, you were wrong to give the right-minded a reason to celebrate this week. Because we’re not Hungary, are we? And because the impulse to insulate needs no encouragement.
Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and editorial writer for The Kansas City Star and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow her on Twitter: @MelindaKCMO