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NYT Ethicist Says Gates Should Still Sue

Somehow in the rush of events we missed this from the New York Times’ blog — The Moral of the Story which gives us “the Ethicist’s take on the news”:

Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his Manhattan apartment.

Why Henry Louis Gates Should Sue

July 27, 2009

By Randy Cohen

The Issue

Last week in Cambridge, Mass., Sgt. James Crowley arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard, for disorderly conduct while responding to a reported break-in at Gates’s home. The charges were subsequently dropped, and the city of Cambridge expressed regret, but Gates holds out the possibility of suing Crowley, the city or its Police Department. President Obama has urged calm and conciliation, and invited Gates and Crowley to have a beer and a chat at the White House. Should Gates sip or sue?

The Argument

Gates should enjoy a cool one and then file suit, assuming he has legal grounds to do so. We Americans are often mocked for being overly litigious, but we are not nearly litigious enough. In the right circumstances, filing suit can be a way to pursue social justice, and that makes it thoroughly ethical.

I am not encouraging frivolous lawsuits or those inspired by TV pitchmen who use the words “slip and fall” as if invoking El Dorado. Rather, I refer to suits filed to oppose systemic injustice, for the benefit of the larger community, often at some personal risk and expense. This is not opportunism; it’s altruism, not self-interest but civic virtue. A lawsuit by Gates could lead to a formal examination of the troubled history of police interactions with African-Americans and hence would meet this standard.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, an organization that has sued the New York Police Department many times on behalf of individuals and groups, told me that lawsuits can be “an important tool for reform when coupled with advocacy and public education efforts and when the circumstances are conducive to change.”

Such laudable results can flow not only from great historic decisions — Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade — but from local actions, like the N.Y.C.L.U.’s suits over the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policies and its handling of demonstrators during the 2004 Republican convention. Simply participating in such a suit can be regarded as the crowning achievement of a lifetime. When the pediatrician Howard Engle died last week, the headline of his obituary in The New York Times was “H. A. Engle, Tobacco Plaintiff, Dies at 89.” …

Even a losing lawsuit can compel a powerful institution — government agency or corporation — to disclose its policies and practices during legal proceedings. A lawsuit can provide a public forum to examine a significant issue, guided by a dispassionate judge. What could be more virtuous?

There are arguments against going to law. For Gates in particular, using the courts is hardly the only way to be heard. He has been widely interviewed about the arrest; even his daughter has spoken about it on television. (Crowley first told his side of the story on a local sports talk-radio show.) So prominent is Gates that a reporter at a White House press conference asked the president about the arrest. Gates could write a book about it, lecture about it at Harvard or explore it in a television series. (He was returning from shooting one in China the day of the incident.)

Nor is he ethically obligated to sue. Doing so is supererogatory, above and beyond the call of duty. Only he can decide if he has the stomach for a struggle and the resources — financial, psychological — to proceed.

And if he does, there is no guarantee that he would initiate real social change. David Feige, the former trial chief of the Bronx Defenders, public defenders in, well, yes, the Bronx, told me: “There is a fairly equivocal record in forcing reforms through individual lawsuits. Class-action suits have been more effective — those brought to improve prison conditions, for example. So what we really need is more broad, social-justice class-action suits.”

These arguments notwithstanding, Gates should sue. Social change proceeds through the combination of many forces — legislation, litigation and public discourse among them. For Gates to contribute to this effort would be laudable. (And given the high — and disheartening — number of African-American men who, since Gates arrest, have described their own similar encounters with the police, the class-action suit Feige calls for might be sadly possible.)

The president has softened his initial response to this affair, withdrawing his remark at the press conference that “the Cambridge police acted stupidly.” He now suggests that both Gates and Crowley “overreacted.” Quite likely. But if Gates overreacted, he did so only as an individual, an outburst that might be obnoxious but is not criminal. There is no law against Contempt of Cop. If Crowley overreacted, he erred as a professional, perhaps abusing his office in a manner that is particularly fraught, given the history of African-Americans and the police. That’s what should be examined in court.

Both Crowley and Gates have accepted Obama’s invitation. Courteous conversation is a fine thing; beer is a fine thing. But not even White House brew can resolve this conflict the way a trial can. Gates and Crowley should drink heartily, speak civilly and eventually reconvene in a courtroom.

You can plow through this lengthy screed and be morally uplifted – or not.

Or you can just cut to the chase and read the summation The Times provides in an aside:

In the right circumstances, filing suit can be a way to pursue social justice, and that makes it thoroughly ethical.

It doesn’t matter if you have a leg to stand on, according to the professional ethicist for the New York Times, you should sue just to advance ‘social justice.’ Even if you were in the wrong, as Mr. Gates was.

By the way, just how many residences does Mr. Gates have? There is his Cambridge house, his house on Martha’s Vineyard and now we find out he has an apartment in Manhattan.

We thought teachers were underpaid?

There must be a lot of money in teaching African-American studies.

This article was posted by Steve on Tuesday, July 28th, 2009. Comments are currently closed.

18 Responses to “NYT Ethicist Says Gates Should Still Sue”

  1. curvyred says:

    I predict that soon the NYT will be turning off the lights and shutting up shop.

  2. I asked the question, what did the officer to do be racist when this first happened and now I’m asking: what did the officer to do get sued? Honestly, the officer did his duty and now he might be getting sued for it? Watch out all you firefighters, you might get sued now for putting out fires at someones home when they didn’t want the fire put out.

  3. Liberals Demise says:

    “We thought teachers were under paid?”

    Not if you have your very own “Loan Sharking” er…. I mean, non-profit 501(c)3 “Charity” that doesn’t file its’ tax exempt papers with the IRS and is open to the “General Public” ……. but isn’t!

    Nope ….. not one hint of racism here!!
    (or criminal activity)

    • pdsand says:

      The Harvard house is also subsidized housing, as Harvard Real Estate service is dedicated to providing housing to faculty at below market pricing.

  4. Rusty Shackleford says:

    …… For Gates to contribute to this effort would be LAUGHABLE.

    There, fixed it.

  5. neocon mom says:

    Oh, that’s it! There haven’t been enough lawsuits yet! More race-baiting, fear-mongering, shakedown and takedown of the deepest pockets in America. Then we won’t have the good professor overreacting to a policeman who is simply doing his job anymore.

    This guy is an ethics expert? I guess I used to believe that word meant something but after seeing this guy’s work, seeing who gets called out on ethics violations inside the beltway and who doesn’t, I confess I have no clue what that word really means.

    • Right of the People says:

      NC Mom, that’s where you got it wrong. It’s ethnics not ethics.

      They were playing the 911 tape on the local news this morning and his race is never brought into it. In fact race is never brought into it at all until Gates brings it in. I guess Jesse and Al are probably advising him.

    • Rusty Shackleford says:

      In one respect, I’m sort of glad this is all happening. On a personal level, I’ve been involved in minor racial “skirmishes” that when brought forward had no merit.

      Now it’s happening on a “national’ level (for lack of a better way to put it) and based, in part, on the interview on CNN with one of Crowley’s fellow officers, a black female, I think headway is being made in a good way. She denounced both Gates and the president saying that Gates was the instigator and that she voted for Blammo, but based on his behavior, never again.

      Hopefully this groundswell of critical thinking will grow and maybe America will slowly return to a place where logic prevails before the hippies arrived and got everyone thinking that what’s cool and hip is what’s right.

    • neocon mom says:

      I think that lady’s defense of her friend and colleague will be pivotal in the public perception of Bam, and represents the possibility that there may even be a small defection of black support for The One.

  6. proreason says:

    “There must be a lot of money in teaching African-American studies”

    That’s not his job. It’s a hobby.

    Race-baiting and financial fraud are his real jobs. And we know those pay very well.

    And by the way, has anybody noticed that each time we are introduced to a new fried of Obamy, he or she is perfectly in the mold of the friends we already knew.

    In science, if you develop a theory, and all of the known facts fit the theory, it quickly moves out of the realm of theory and into the realm of scientific fact.

    Let’s see if we can develop a theory about the Moron’s friends.

    • Liberals Demise says:

      We have a “BINGO” here!!

    • U NO HOO says:

      “has anybody noticed that each time we are introduced to a new fried of Obamy, he or she is perfectly in the mold of the friends we already knew.”

      Yes, socialists and tax cheats.

  7. neocon mom says:

    Oh, and why is encouraging frivolous lawsuits ethical? Lawsuits are in and of themselves a shakedown and intimidation tactic.

    But let’s explore that for a moment..what if Sgt. Crowley sued Gates? Sure, maybe he wouldn’t prevail. But it could be a searing indictment of the racial grievance business–a disclosure of their tactics and network. It could go all the way to the White House! A game-changer!

    I am not a fan of lawsuits. Heaven knows whatever ability court proceedings have ever had to positively change the culture have not only been diluted but also outweighed by the negative impact of a few (Roe v. Wade, Kelo v. New London to name just two). But it seems to me that if anyone may have a legitimate grievance here, it’s the guy who has to walk the beat after having been maligned as “racist” by Gates and “stupid” by the president.

  8. pdsand says:

    I’ve always been dubious of the claim that lawsuits are about the society at large. It seems to me when you file a lawsuit at the top of the page there’s a plaintiff and a defendent and that to me is who’s involved. I’ve never seen a lawsuit that said “a greater sense of morality vs. eckhardt”, and I don’t think I soon will.

  9. MrBill says:

    Randy Cohen used to be one of David Letterman’s writers. If I knew only this about him, I might think this piece was a nice bit of satire. I’ve read his column before, however (my local paper carries it on Sunday) and unfortunately (judging from some of his other goofy ideas) he’s dead serious. Maybe the real joke is that the NYT hired this guy as an “ethicist”.

  10. canary says:

    Gates is a selfish pig, who will hurt the community tax-payers. Police in my town would have done the same to a white person, acting liking disorderly and threatening. That’s why people live here. Safety is a priority. I think everyone knows police can over do it, but Gates asked for it. Everyone knows you cooperate with police and don’t go nuts like Gate did. He needs to get over it.
    If Gates had been white and poor , the police never would have dropped the charges. Gate got off easy because of he was black and wealthy.

  11. If lawsuits are social justice, then counter suits are even MORE socially just.

    These “ethicists” are so full of c-r-a-p they stink to high heaven.

  12. Melly says:

    Sue his own kin? The Sergeant and Gates are related.
    Can’t make this stuff up.


    Now – if the good Professor sues, there goes the annual family reunions, the walks on the beach on Martha’s Vineyard, the many green Irish beers they’ll be sharing on St Patrick’s Day.

    Wonder how many of my fellow Irishmen (ladies too) on this blog are related to Gates :-O

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