NYU Petitioners Do Harold Koh — and Themselves — a Grave Disservice
Newsweek published a long article today about a petition organized by NYU students, alumni, and non-law faculty claiming that it would be “unacceptable” for Harold Koh to teach international human-rights law at the law school. Here is a snippet:
While working for the Obama administration, Koh was the most public legal defender of the president’s drone strike program. Last month, a petition was circulated at NYU Law—one of the top law schools in the country—that called Koh’s teaching of international human rights law for the 2014-1015 academic year “unacceptable.”
“Given Mr. Koh’s role in crafting and defending what objectively amounts to an illegal and inhumane program of extrajudicial assassinations and potential war crimes, we find his presence at NYU Law and, in particular, as a professor of International Human Rights Law, to be unacceptable,” the petition reads.
The petition has drawn around 200 signatures, but it has stirred a much bigger controversy on campus than the numbers might suggest.
I do not think scholars should get a free pass for their ideas simply because they were government officials when they embraced them. I continue to believe that it’s a terrible idea for serious scholars to go into government — this kerfuffle being Exhibit A. And I have very serious disagreements with Koh about the legality of the Obama administration’s drone program; indeed, I’ve discussed them with him.
That said, I find the petition appalling. Koh is one of the great international human-rights scholars of his generation — and he has personally taught or mentored most of the great international human-rights scholars of the current one. He is brilliant, compassionate, kind, and profoundly ethical. No one who knows him even a little (and although I know him, I can’t say I know him well) could possibly believe that he did not bring all of those qualities to his role as the State Department’s legal advisor. Does that mean he was always right? Of course not. As I said, I don’t share his view of the drone program. On the contrary, I think the program is abhorrent and quite often illegal. (And have said as much in my scholarship.) But I would bet my last dollar that Koh never went against his beliefs while working at State — and that he did everything he could, within the confines of his position, to make the drone program comply with international law as he understood it.
Those of us on the left — and readers know just how far left I am — need to stop viewing US administrations as monoliths. Not all government officials are bad. Even terrible administrations have good people in them who work behind the scenes to minimise their terribleness. John Bellinger III falls into that category in the Bush administration; commenters on the blog have done him a disservice by lumping him together with people like John Yoo. And the NYU students, alumni, and faculty who have signed this petition have done Harold Koh an even worse disservice by accusing him — publicly — of being unfit to teach international human-rights law. On the contrary, NYU would be lucky to have him.