conference boycotts

Does this happen to you sociologists? In brief, the organization for legal academics is called the American Association of Law Schools (AALS). Like you all, we have annual meetings that everyone hates attending and where the scholarship presented/panels organized are of even more dubious value than what you lot complain about (mainly because publishing is very ad hoc in our system of student-edited, mostly non-peer reviewed law journals). But it’s a big schmooze-fest, and I always think the panels on legal pedagogy look interesting if you care about pedagogy (which everyone should, but that’s neither here nor there).

At any rate, some law professor groups are threatening to boycott AALS events held at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, because the hotel’s owner contributed $125,000 to an initiative to ban same-sex marriage in California. In particular, the legal writing institute has issued a letter of intent to boycott the conference by refusing to hold their awards ceremony at the hotel.

Here’s a roundup of coverage. My favorite posts are by Andrew Perlman (Legal Ethics Forum) and Paul Horwitz (PrawfsBlawg) and Tony Infanti (Feminist Law Professors).

In general, I agree with Andrew, Tony, and Paul: I am not generally opposed to boycotts, but this one doesn’t seem right, and several good points are raised:

1) This is not a case of the hotel actually discriminating against the GLBTQ community, but rather the political opinions of its owner. Shouldn’t a distinction be made? Also, slippery slope issues here–do we boycott only when the owner is a majority shareholder, or does any economic revenue to a person with disagreeable political viewpoints constitute a violation of our own anti-discrimination principles? If so, that’s another slippery slope. I should take a litmus test of the guy who sells me my coffee at the corner cafe.

2) Wouldn’t it be better, as Tony says, to host events, talks, etc. supporting the opposite view of same-sex marriage be a better way to express disagreement than an symbolic and economic boycott? In a discipline that supposedly values debate, the adversarial resolution of debates, free expression, and “the marketplace of ideas,” this just doesn’t seem to fit with our values. A non-discrimination policy is just that; it does not mean a non-disagreeable viewpoint policy.

3) Is it even within the correct purview of an academic body to take such a stance? Again, things would be different if the hotel itself engaged in discrimination–most agree that would change the matter considerably. Moreover, this isn’t the same thing as what happened in San Francisco last year, in which many professors refused to cross picket lines and go to a hotel in which there was a hotly contested labor dispute. Here, an academic body appears to be endorsing one political viewpoint by boycotting the other merely on the basis of the financial contributions of its owner, which is not quite the same as boycotting discrimination itself. Flip arguments have been made that pro-life professors and students would not want their dollars to go to a pro-choice voting owner of a hotel, but there doesn’t seem to be much support for that logical corollary that such an embargo would be supportable. Where do such debates end, if we cannot agree about the issues underlying the debate? Does this not seem like ideological cherry-picking? If so, bad all around.

For what it’s worth, I’m in favor of same-sex unions and equal GLBTQ rights and the anti-discrimination policy of the Legal Writing Institute, but I still don’t think this boycott is a good idea.

What has been the experience of the ASA? I am sure that such contentious issues rile you guys up too. How do you get around it?

2 thoughts on “conference boycotts”

  1. BL, I agree with your reasoning here, although I can imagine a reasonable argument the other way around too. My understanding is that one of the reasons ASA has been in “weird” places (frankly, nicer than some of the nonweird ones) recently is because of a pretty strong ethic of honoring labor disputes in host cities (viz. San Francisco a few years ago) and GLBTQ issues (Atlanta until a few years ago). APSA had an interesting debate about this viz. meeting in New Orleans, and it was framed in terms of rights GLBTQ *members* of APSA would lose out on if the meeting were to be held there. I think they ultimately decided to meet there with a public statement.

    Each of these seems like a reasonable decision, but I have to agree about the slippery slope too. After all, there’s virtually no possibility of a labor dispute in Atlanta because Georgia is a right-to-work-(for-less) state. Shouldn’t we boycott all of those too?

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