An alternative headline for this article could be: Black man fired from job and kicked out of his home because he defended the constitutional rights of an unpopular person. Sound farfetched? That’s what happened when Harvard Law School decided to cave to the outrage mob and let political correctness triumph over justice and common sense.
Ronald Sullivan, Jr. and his wife Stephanie Robinson are both attorneys with degrees from Harvard Law School and impressive resumes in the years that followed their graduations. Sullivan’s biography on the Harvard website notes his work advising former President Barack Obama on criminal justice issues and his criminal defense work on notoriously difficult cases, securing acquittals in high-profile cases and successfully winning the release of over 6,000 wrongfully incarcerated prisoners.
Since 2009, Sullivan and Robinson served as the co-faculty deans for Winthrop House, one of Harvard’s residential houses. They were the first African-Americans to hold those positions, which include living in the dormitory buildings and serving as advisors to the students there, offering guidance in academics and future career advice as well as working to foster a social atmosphere.
Unfortunately for the couple, their faculty dean roles came into sharp conflict with Sullivan’s criminal defense work during recent months, when he was retained as part of the legal defense team for Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who is perhaps one of the #MeToo movement’s biggest villains. Weinstein is facing multiple charges related to accusations that he sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and/or raped a long list of actresses, journalists, and other women working in the film industry.
Sullivan’s participation in Weinstein’s legal defense outraged some of the Harvard students at Winthrop, and they demanded he be removed from his position. One of the main student activists, Danukski Mudannayake, described Sullivan’s legal work for Weinstein as “not only upsetting, but deeply trauma-inducing” and claimed it proved that he “does not value the safety of students he lives within Winthrop House.” Mudannayake writes for The Harvard Crimson, the campus student paper, and helped organize a change.org petition, protest events, and other efforts to encourage the administration to kick Sullivan out.
The outrage mob won. Over the weekend, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Kurana wrote an email to students stating, “Ronald Sullivan and Stephanie Robinson will not be continuing as your Faculty Deans when their term ends on June 30, 2019.”
The news was shocking to both sides.
Mudannayake told the New York Times she was “just completely gobsmacked, but in the best way,” adding that she was “very proud today of our college and our college’s administration for finally choosing to do the right thing.”
Sullivan and Robinson also released a statement, saying, “We are surprised and dismayed by the action Harvard announced today. We believed the discussions we were having with high-level university representatives were progressing in a positive manner, but Harvard unilaterally ended those talks.”
Their positions at the law school have not been affected thus far, but since their faculty dean roles necessarily involved living in the Winthrop residential buildings, the couple will have to move.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Weinstein is, by the evidence that has come to light thus far, a terrible person who used his money, fame, and power to demand sexual gratification from unwilling women, and to ruin the careers of anyone who thwarted him. He is not a sympathetic figure in the slightest.
He is still entitled to a full and vigorous defense of his constitutional rights.
Our justice system is built on the foundational principles of due process that the government must prove every element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, that we have have a right to have our case decided by a jury of our peers, and that we have a right to have an attorney advise us throughout this process and advocate on our behalf.
We are all entitled to these rights, regardless of age, gender, race, wealth, or popularity. In fact, there’s a fair argument that these rights are more critical for those who are unpopular.
The burden on the government to satisfy the demands of due process should never be lowered because someone is out of favor. That would be a truly horrific precedent to contemplate, for in these days of social media viral stories, hashtag activism, and 24-7 news channels, public sentiment can be whipped into a fury within mere moments, and not always with any effort to maintain fairness and accuracy.
Harvey Weinstein deserves the hell that is raining down upon him. He deserved the loss of his position in the company he co-founded with his brother, he deserved watching that company collapse into bankruptcy, he deserved being expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he deserved the complete collapse of his personal and professional life, all of it.
But he also deserves a legal defense against the criminal charges he is facing.
The Harvard students who demanded Sullivan’s ouster are seemingly unable to separate the legal representation against the accusation of a crime from the crime itself. As Reason’s Robby Soave wrote:
This is a disaster. The administration has endorsed the ridiculous notion that serving as legal counsel for a person accused of sexual misconduct is itself a form of sexual misconduct, or at the very least contributes to sexual harassment on campus. It is no exaggeration to say that Khurana has undermined one of the most important principles of modern, enlightened justice. He should be ashamed of himself.
Harvard fed the monster of the outrage mob by abandoning Sullivan, and they seem satisfied, for now. But these student activists have now experienced the high of their success — Mudannayake told the New York Times the students were in a “very happy” mood and enjoying a “celebratory atmosphere” — and since they’ve been taught that this tactic works, what demands will they make next?
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.