A National Law Student Code of Conduct?

hammurabi.jpgReputation Defender is a new start-up that seeks to commodify internet self-help. According to yesterday’s WashingtonPost article on Xoxohth, the service will destroy harmful content about you wherever it appears on the World Wide Web, presumably through an escalating series of gentle reminders followed by hard nudges against hosts. As I blogged yesterday, the site is trying to make a public good out of this private remedy by “encourag[ing] law schools to adopt a professional conduct code for students.”

How is this different from the codes of conduct that currently govern law student behavior? Temple, to take an example I’m familiar with, has a broad-ranging student code that includes the following provisions of interest:

It shall be a violation of this Code for a TLS student knowingly to do or to attempt to do or to assist in . . . a course of conduct . . . directed at a member of the Law School community which would cause a reasonable person in the victim’s position severe emotional distress or which would place a reasonable person in the victim’s position in fear of bodily injury or death, provided that this provision shall not be interpreted to abridge the right of any member of the Law School community to freedom of expression;

[or] . . . engage in conduct, not otherwise covered by any other provision of the Code, involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation with regard to activities or programs related to the Law School, which adversely reflect upon his or her fitness to remain a student at the Law School.

Such policies are fairly widespread, often with explicit stalking provisions. I think that any law student who posts the name of another student at their school, in a public forum with a hostile sexual or racial tone, and refuses to stop making such comments on demand, would face probable disciplinary sanction if they were identified. (I understand there are First Amendment implications here, somewhere, but that is an argument I’ll leave to folks like David Bernstein to make.) This conclusion holds even if the comments were intended in jest, so long as a reasonable person would feel threatened (in the language of most codes). I assume that law students read disciplinary codes when they start their education, or would not find them terribly surprising.

Now, whether such a student would be liable for making comments about students at another university – who they may never have met, or intend to meet – is a harder problem. Individual law schools may believe that they have an attenuated interest in such cases, and that the matter is better left to Bar Committees or the police. This is a jurisdictional concern. They may also believe that they have no writ for protecting non-community members – something like an international law/statist view. (What will happen when the human rights folks get a hold of such codes is an interesting problem!) That said, I am pretty sure that a substantiated allegation of cyberharassment would be good grounds for denying bar admission, though criminal prosecution would be unlikely. So, law students submitting pictures to such contests, or commenting about the affected students, run a real risk of professional sanction if they are discovered.

What, then, does a national code add? Most importantly, I think, the goal would be to create intra-school responsibilities, resulting in a work-around of the host-immunity problem by sanctioning students who enable such conduct, instead of just the (anonymous and hard-to-reach) students that perpetuate it. Thus, the national code of conduct would make law school disciplinary committees something like private attorneys general for conduct that the criminal law will rarely reach and the ethical rules reach only on discovery.

Additionally, a national code of conduct might have a signaling function. No doubt there would be a following campaign to enlist law school student deans in education efforts about the professional consequences of cyber-stalking for victims and perpetrators alike, and to suggest that schools have ways of detecting such conduct that will (no doubt) be undisclosed. These efforts will not eliminate cyber stalking by law students, but it will push it to less public fora. Good.

Photo Credit: The Code of Hammurabi, diorite, c. 1750 bce, Old Babylonian.

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3 Responses

  1. angelina jolie says:

    Code of conduct for law students? Give me a break. Just about every school and work place has a “code” re: keep your bigotry and the rest of such to yourself. Frankly, people who would resort to harassing the traditional harasee groups is a) a coward, and b) an idiot. The fact is, there is all sorts of hate in this world. The internet is merely a convenient vehicle (previously unavailable) for people to voice their bigotry anonymously. The real question is: are law schools and the rest trying to protect the vulnerale from harassment, or is it simply in the interest of the school or employer to deter its constituents from letting the public know that these institutions harbor bigots? I am a bit of a cynic, so I think it’s the latter. Also, I think the policy really ought to be say as you wish and all that you think. That way, people applying for employment, and students applying for admission could genuinely be able to judge what kind of a crowd they are getting into.

    Let the bigots have their airtime, I say. This is pretty much the only way to expose the ridiculous and unsustainable stereotypes people carry around. The only way to get rid of short-sightedness and sloppy thinking that is the essential part and parcel of bigotry – is to allow it, expose it, debate it – and reach the one and only conclusion about it: close-mindedness, lack of humility, and lack of basic mental ability to appreciate the causes of ignorance – these are the roots of bigotry, the roots of people’s hatred for others. People who are happy don’t waste their time hating other groups of people: happy people don’t envy the richer and don’t blame the jobless. Only the mirable have the energy to hate. So why not just allow it and deal with it, ey? Expose the jealous and the petty, let them speak their minds. Let bigots choke on the obvious inconsistensies in theor own thinking. As far as I see it, tolerating (exposing) bigots is about the only way to turn the tide here.

  2. Ira Greenfield says:


    I am deeply curious as to why you’ve picked this particular issue as your new pet. What is going on with your research? David, there will always be people in this world secretly bearing all sorts of hatreds, and all sorts of people sneaking through the cracks of “codes of conduct,” or “office/firm policies re: no harassment allowed.” The underlying attitudes will not chance simply because people employers or the institutions where they are enrolled do not tolerate these folks.

    David, people will only learn tolerance with time, and only if bigotry is a topic discussed out in the open. I say you are better than all this. Pick a new topic, run some statistics ons your results, and put out a paper that informs people of the quarky stuff that court and people do. Bigots will be bigots. I say don’t acknowledge their bullshit–it only encourages it.

  3. Former law student says:

    I am jaded by having grown up with young male persons*, perhaps, so the answers to the following questions are not obvious to me. Can anyone help?

    Would having a link to her “social networking” website posted on a discussion board under the rubric “Hotties of the T-14” really cause a reasonable female law student severe emotional distress? Or would having some creep opine “I would bang her silly” place a reasonable female law student in fear of bodily injury or death?

    *A few of my fellow undergraduates actually devised a rating system for the girls we knew, and one day sat in the student union, holding up their appraisals like figure skating judges when the girls passed by.