Ethics

Credit Due? Opposing One Form of Institutional Support for an Academic Boycott Ethics
The verb "boycott" is derived from the surname of Charles Boycott, an English land agent who was ostracized by Irish tenants who dubbed him a "land-grabber."

Credit Due? Opposing One Form of Institutional Support for an Academic Boycott

December 20, 2021 1809
Old painting of Charles Boycott
The verb “boycott” is derived from the surname of Charles Boycott, an English land agent who was ostracized by Irish tenants who dubbed him a “land-grabber.”

The student editors of the New York University Law School’s Review of Law & Social Change recently announced their full participation in the movement to boycott Israel. Both the university and law school administrations have denounced the students’ declaration as “antithetical to the precepts of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas,” but they need to go further in at least one regard, as I will explain below.

In keeping with their “firm commitment to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (‘BDS’) movement,” the RLSC editors declared that they will not publish articles “based on the false premise of symmetry/parity between the oppressors and the oppressed” – meaning Israel and Palestine – because they consider such efforts “intellectually dishonest and morally reprehensible forms of normalization.” That is a poor and counterproductive decision, which, if followed by more influential publications, would undermine prospects for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Nonetheless, it is well within the bounds of editorial discretion.

Many publications have editorial policies concerning the acceptable ideological or other values in the articles they accept. Law school journals predictably tend to skew toward the left. There are at least 28 law journals specializing in gender or feminism, for example, which are unlikely to publish articles opposing abortion rights, and there are over 70 environmental law reviews, equally unlikely to accept essays promoting increased use of fossil fuels. If the editors of RLSC want to establish an unprecedented restriction on the breadth and relevance of their journal, excluding dialogue in favor of posturing, the choice is theirs to make.

Nor are RLSC’s content criteria any business of NYU’s faculty or administration. Unlike the peer-review practiced in virtually every other scholarly discipline, law journals are overwhelmingly student edited and student run, a convention that dates to the first issue of the Harvard Law Review in 1887. The host schools typically provide funding, administrative support, and office space, but the crucial job of article selection – which may have great impact on academic careers – is left entirely to students, at all but a relative handful of journals. Only in the rarest situations – perhaps involving plagiarism or invidious discrimination – might faculty intervene in a journal’s article selection. There does not currently seem to be any viable basis for such involvement at NYU.

The RLSC’s BDS statement, however, goes beyond article selection, in a way that does call for action by the NYU administration. It extends to the boycott of “events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israeli academic institutions or that otherwise promote the normalization of Israel in the global academy,” as well as lectures by “official representatives of Israeli academic institutions.” This policy violates core tenets of academic freedom by seeking to restrict the participation of Israeli academics in the intellectual life of NYU, and denying the opportunity of other students, including the non-editorial staff of RLSC, to benefit from exposure to scholars with differing points of view. As the American Association of University Professors put it in a 2013 statement, “a systematic academic boycott . . . threatens the principles of free expression and communication on which we collectively depend.”

While the NYU administration cannot and should not prevent RLSC’s sweeping BDS commitment – which includes boycotting Sabra hummus and Pillsbury baked goods – neither should it allow university resources to be used directly in support of it. The law school currently provides “one or two ungraded academic credits [to third-year students] for their work on a student journal,” including RLSC. The stated rationale for allowing course credit is the amount of academic work and related “educational achievement” attributed to each editorial position. That justification is obviously inapplicable to political advocacy, and it is especially inapplicable to conduct that contravenes the academic freedom of others and is “antithetical to the free exchange of ideas.”

The editors of the RLSC must be free to boycott whomever they wish – for whatever reasons, no matter how performative or wrongheaded – but NYU does not need to award them academic credit for it. The law school administration and faculty should immediately remove RLSC from the list of student-edited journals eligible for credit. Students deeply committed to the BDS movement will presumably be undeterred. Students more interested in educational achievement than Middle East virtue signaling can still earn credit at one of NYU’s eight other journals.


Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. His new book is The Trials of Rasmea Odeh: How a Palestinian Guerrilla Gained and Lost US. Citizenship.

Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and author of Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters, and other books such as 2015's The “Colored Hero” Of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland And The War Against Slavery and Lawyers' Poker: 52 Lessons That Lawyers Can Learn From Card Players. He is the director of the Fred Bartlit Center for Trial Advocacy. He has been living with ME/CFS since 2006.

View all posts by Steven Lubet

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John K. Wilson

I disagree with the student editors, but I defend their right to be wrong without suffering punishment for it. Sadly, Lubet endorses retaliation by a university against students for their views. Lubet claims that the administration must not “allow university resources to be used directly in support of” a boycott. This is wrong. Since all legal journals and student groups use various university resources,  Lubet’s standard would amount to a ban on such organizations. If editors are given academic credit for their work, that credit cannot be withdrawn simply because Lubet dislikes their views. His assertion that academic credit is… Read more »