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Where are the professors? Part 1 of 2

— January 24, 2016

Where are the professors? The students are in the streets, but where are the professors? The people of Ferguson, of Baltimore, of Cleveland are in the streets, but where are the professors? The Bill of Rights has been traduced and eviscerated, and where are the law professors? Mainstream news is a product of the Pentagon and the State Department, and where are the Journalism professors? Hollywood movies are a product of the Pentagon and the CIA, and where are the film professors?

Public education is starved, its funds diverted to for-profit charter schools until Detroit’s crumbling public schools are filled with mice and black mold. Detroit’s teachers are risking their jobs staging sickouts in defense of education, and where are the Education professors?

Three years ago, I wrote an email letter to 16 of the University of Michigan’s law professors, the 16 whose profiles on the law school’s web page identified them as “interested” in constitutional law. In that letter I briefly laid out a set of facts with which I assumed those professors would be familiar. They were the facts of Hedges v. Obama, a case then in the federal courts where the plaintiffs, mostly journalists, were challenging the constitutionality of section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The plaintiffs asserted, and the Obama administration’s lawyers refused to deny, that the language of section 1021 authorized the president to use the military to arrest without warrant and detain without trial—in other words, to “disappear”–any journalist who so much as interviews any person deemed by the government to have given “substantial support” to al Qaeda or “associated forces.”

At the district court level, the plaintiffs won their suit, with a courageous Judge Katherine B. Forrest ruling that the language of the section was so vague as to effectively eliminate the Fifth Amendment right of due process. More than this, I suggested to the professors, such a law would cast a chilling effect on all investigative journalism that could be seen as critical of the government, and indeed on all dissent itself. On the evening I wrote my letter, the case was on appeal in the Circuit Court, which had already issued a stay of Judge Forrest’s injunction against section 1021. In short, I submitted to the professors, the law at issue in Hedges v. Obama amounted to a critical threat to the Bill of Rights and was perhaps the most important federal case of our lifetimes.

Yet the media were ignoring the case. The pages of the major dailies regularly featured stories about district court cases involving steroids in baseball, but they had no column space to spare for a circuit court case that threatened to curtail the First Amendment and quietly usher in martial law.

What did I ask of the professors? A cup of coffee. The public had to be made aware, and something had to be done to interfere with this existential assault on the Bill of Rights. So I asked them to choose dates and times that would work for them, and I would organize a meet-up at the Ann Arbor coffee shop of their choice. I signed the letter, “James Caton, J.D.” in hopes of winning credibility.

Three of the 16 responded. Two of them used the expression “too much on my plate” but wished me luck on my “project.” The third said it was an important cause, and he would be there if it were possible. But he had been a visiting professor and was now back home in Belfast.

I have no doubt that law professors are kept busy by the demands of their careers. Yet I cannot help but think that those with knowledge and power have a responsibility. And as much as they may like to deny it, professors have power. And not just in the classroom.

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