Parody flunks out

By HARVEY SILVERGLATE  |  July 30, 2008

The campus came to a near-standstill in 1992 — just one year after Obama had graduated — over a piece in the Harvard Law Review’s annual April Fool’s Day issue, the Harvard Law Revue. In this parody, meant for circulation only among Law Review members, the editors mocked the scholarship of then–recently deceased New England School of Law professor Mary Joe Frug, who had been tragically stabbed to death near her Cambridge residence. At the time of her gruesome death, Frug was working on a comprehensive treatment of feminist legal philosophy, in which she insisted that the contemporary legal system “constructs” women’s sex and gender roles, and that rules permit not only the “sexualization” of the female body, but also its “terrorization.” Her arguments, it could be (and was) reasonably argued, bordered on the bizarre, and her prose was laced with expletives. The majority of the Harvard Law Review’s editors nonetheless favored publishing the unfinished draft of her work as a tribute to Frug. A vocal minority opposed the decision, arguing that the draft was sloppy and that Frug herself would not have considered it ready for publication. Still others argued that Frug’s theories and prose were ludicrous and did not belong in the prestigious academic journal.

For many of these reasons, a group of anonymous Harvard Law Review members parodied the sprawling manifesto in the annual Law Revue. To say the parody was scathing is an understatement: the writers made tasteless references to Frug’s violent death and cruelly attributed the satirical work to “Mary Doe, Rigor-Mortis Professor of Law.” Holistically, however, the piece read as a stinging rebuke of the real Law Review’s decision to publish Frug’s unfinished draft, and more generally, an unabashed lampoon of radical-feminist scholarship — all well within the bounds of traditional parody.

As the parodic piece (leaked from what was supposed to be a small group of readers) made its rounds throughout the campus, it provoked a firestorm, particularly among faculty members and female students. The president of the Law Review wrote an open letter apologizing to the offended parties. The editors originally responsible for publishing Frug’s actual manifesto also apologized for not protesting the parody before it was printed and circulated at the annual April Fool’s Day dinner of the Law Review staff. Finally, the authors apologized as well.

Then-dean Robert Clark initially declared that the school would not seek punitive measures. “I agree with those who think that the best response to offensive speech is not to curtail it forcibly,” he said, “but to condemn it, and explain why it is wrong.” Clark’s response gained approval from free-speech advocates, but it did not satisfy the enraged on campus.

Professor David Kennedy pressed the school’s disciplinary Administrative Board to bring charges against the parody’s authors and the Law Review’s editors. He further recommended that the board look into whether those involved might be morally disqualified from becoming lawyers. Kennedy suggested, with apparent seriousness, that the piece posed a threat to women’s physical safety and well-being, writing to the Board:

Many women who received this [parody] anonymously in their student box experienced the document’s delivery as a direct threat of personal violence — murder of women is held out as trivial and quite palpably possible.

Remarkably, the Administrative Board appeared to agree, labeling the parody a form of “harassment.” Yet it refused to punish the authors because “no law school rule imposes limits on the content of publications by students that would be applicable here.” Thus, rather than absolve the accused students on grounds of academic freedom, the disciplinary body took refuge in the fact that, at that time, the law school did not have a formal code that would outlaw such a parody.

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