John Yoo – Legal and Academic Ethics

Some people think I am wacky about loyalty, ethics, and principles. I have been told I have a “low threshold for ambiguity” regarding some rules and standards. This is true. At some point, I think we cross certain ethical lines and pretending like it is all ambiguous and complex is just blowing smoke. SOMETIMES it is just over the line — and it is black and white. (watching Weeds lately — Nancy just hit her ethical standard — human trafficking).

So today the Bush 9/11 memos came out. These 9 memos (most famous is the torture memo, but there are memos in there that allow the suspension of all kinds of constitutional rights — pretty much all of them) authorizing the military use of force ON UNITED STATES SOIL and revocation of our 4th and 1st amendment rights — all in violation of the Constitution we hold dear.

This led me to a long lecture today about lawyers’ ethical obligations. When the Bush administration asked the White House Counsel to tell them if they could do all of this stuff (warrant-less wiretaps, suspend habeaus, and torture) did the lawyers (Yoo, Gonzalez) have an ethical/professional/moral obligation to say, “NO! This is a total end-run around separation of powers.” I argued today in class that they did. Just like the Japanese internment camps, we are beginning to recognize these moves for what they were — horrendous violations of constitutional authority. Even the Bush administration itself admitted this a few days before Obama took the oath and repudiated the Yoo/gonzalez legal reasoning. But I think there was a preexisting moral and professional ethic that they violated when they wrote these memos advocating lawless activity in violation of federal and international law.

But how does this relate to academic ethics?

I am an academic. What are the things that would make me complicit if I stood by and watched? What is my obligation to my profession? What if my university were engaging in employment discrimination? research in violation of human subjects protection? What if the administration was telling departments who to hire and fire based on political activity or position? What if my university banned students from political protest? What are our ethical standards as academics? What are the things that could happen that I have an obligation to speak out about? I’m serious . . . what are the activities that could go on at a university that (if they were ignored) would make me the John Yoo of academics? I’m looking for input.


4 Responses to John Yoo – Legal and Academic Ethics

  1. vickywoeste says:

    Hey lb, nice to see you on the blog again.

    I’m having a hard time finding a moral equivalent between anything you’ve suggested and Yoo’s actions in the OLC. You’d have to be in a position at your university where you were more than simply a professor, where you were more than passively benefitting from what you see as the university’s illicit/immoral behavior. Yoo’s job was to provide the president with sound, defensible legal advice, and he did not do that. In fact, in the waning days of the administration his successor repudiated several of his memos as “bad legal advice” in a move described as “unprecedented” on NPR tonight.

    So for you to become tne John Yoo of academia you’d have to be ordering the execution of the policy you regard as morally repugnant, or at least advising that said policy was legally defensible. Merely witnessing the policy in action would not come close.

    Sorry. You will have to aim higher if you want to follow in Yoo’s unparalleled footsteps. But then he is busy dodging the media’s requests for comment these days . . .

  2. robertlnelson says:

    I think the answer has to be what you think you are moved to speak about. Many of us entered academe to teach, bring knowledge, and in that way make the world a better place. I think it is our obligation when we see a violation of core academic values that we do something about it. As institutions operating in the real world, and indeed the world of privilege, universities are involved in a lot of morally ambiguous behavior. We should be aware of that and should take action to make a difference or to feel right about ourselves.

    I think the students at NU are fortunate to have a teacher as ethically sensitive and legally aware as you, to raise for them the question of the ethical obligation of a lawyer writing those memos.

    I think it is also important as law and society scholars to understand what produced John Yoo. What was it about him, about his professional socialization, about the circumstances, that led him to embrace the authorship of those memos with such intensity?


  3. oldretiredguy says:

    It seems to me that John Yoo took the law and stretched it beyond reasonable interpretation for the benefit of his employers. So, unless you’ve done a similar thing, I think it would be impossible to compare you to him.

    If, as in the case of John Yoo’s colleagues, you’ve seen such a situation, what is your obligation? To express your opinion? to make yourself heard? Where do you place yourself on the continuum from doing nothing to shooting the instigator(s)?

    I don’t remember hearing anything from John Yoo’s colleagues at the time, so they either said nothing or were a mere voice in the wind.

    You raise a number of question relating to academic ethics. Being silent would be wrong. Being a resonating voice for change over time can make a big and important difference to students and universities. But it might have to be over time – how long has it been since Yoo formulated his positions? Over time, those that opposed them have come to the forefront. But they had to work at it – and they did.

    Wat would you like to see happen? And, what is the most likely way for that to occur? Just as John Yoo’s colleagues eventually worked the system to change (then) accepted positions, I would think that an academic should work the system to try change it – if they aren’t looking out for the long term well being of the students, who is?

  4. lbsmom says:

    When John Yoo’s memos came out, I wondered what I would do if I were his colleague. Does it matter if it harms a few rather than many? I heard forever & a day growing up that President Truman’s decision to drop the bombs on Japan saved many, many lives, but can one wrong make any kind of right?

    As a member of any group or institution, for me, the question becomes whether to: l.Shut up & go along, 2. Raise questions openly & work for change or 3. Leave in protest. I guess it depends on how I strongly I feel about both the issue & the group. Do I have hope of being heard? Is my opinion valued? Do I believe that going on record in opposition & continuing to lobby will effect change (or hope of change)?

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