In proposing to close UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, one member of the Board of Governors’ working group expressed concern that the poverty center engaged in political advocacy. We modestly propose that the board clarify what it considers to be political advocacy. Specifically, responses to the following questions would be helpful to our law school faculty:
The extent of poverty in North Carolina Is this something we can address in our teaching and writing? Some of us fear that referring in any way to the continued existence of desperate poverty might imply that we think someone in government should do something about it. We fear that such an implication would make even dry statistical descriptions of poverty political advocacy.
Environmental law Research shows that polluters often dump waste in poor neighborhoods because the residents don’t have the money to hire lawyers. Discussing this in class seems like it might be out of bounds.
Property law How should we teach the rights of tenants against landlords in eviction proceedings without alluding in some way to the law’s historic concern with unjustly making people homeless? We fear such allusions might be considered political advocacy on behalf of renters, but it is almost impossible to describe the law accurately without mentioning this.
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Criminal law Indigent people are constitutionally entitled to defense counsel at state expense, but many argue that the money spent is woefully inadequate and that the average middle class person would be bankrupted by the costs of criminal defense. Would our own research in this area constitute political advocacy?
First Amendment law If our students ask why we avoid discussing legal topics touching on poverty, what should we say? If we say we avoid topics that might constitute political advocacy, they will probably ask us about the values of free inquiry and open debate that find expression in the First Amendment. Some of our more troublesome students might even argue that we were cheating them out of their educations by sheltering them from controversies that they expect to confront as practicing lawyers. We might have an easier time defending our position if we simply don’t teach them anything about the First Amendment, although some of them might be able to learn about it on their own. Alternately, we could instruct our admissions committee to try to identify such troublemakers and deny them admission.
Clinical education To help our students graduate “ready to practice,” we provide them with opportunities to represent poor people under the supervision of a faculty member. (State bar rules forbid students from representing non-indigent clients.) If a student argues in court for interpretation of a statute in a way that benefits not just the client but all poor people, is that political advocacy?
The medical school We understand that the medical school often treats sick and dying people even if they cannot pay or are not covered by Medicaid. Doesn’t such treatment implicitly advocate a moral obligation to poor people? What is the difference between dying from a disease and dying because you were wrongfully evicted from your home in winter? Out of fairness to the law school, please order the medical school to stop this practice at once.
School of Public Health It has come to our attention that the School of Public Health spends a lot of time researching health conditions that disproportionately affect poor people. This deserves a close look, although we concede that the study of contagious diseases is justified since they may spread to the more affluent.
Opinion writing A few among us have suggested that we can write or teach whatever we want without fear as long as we don’t write opinion pieces for this newspaper. If this is true, this whole controversy really has been much ado about nothing, and we don’t require a better definition of political advocacy. One of my bolder colleagues asked whether we should avoid any criticism of government policy or whether it is simply government policies affecting the poor that are out of bounds. (This is an untenured faculty member, so perhaps there’s no need to bother with this question.) Also, is there an exception for satire? If not, we dearly hope this does not constitute a violation of that policy.
We welcome guidance on these difficult questions. After all, what sort of professors would we be if we were not willing to let other people tell us how to teach and write?
Joseph E. Kennedy is a professor of law at UNC. He does not speak for UNC or for any other member of his faculty. He is a big fan of Jonathan Swift.