NY Times 'Ethicist' Wants Henry Louis Gates to Sue the Police

Randy Cohen loves lawsuits: "We Americans are often mocked for being overly litigious, but we are not nearly litigious enough." New York Times "Ethicist" columnist Randy Cohen - who recently implied the Bush administration was insane and once donated money to the far-left MoveOn.org in an apparent violation of, um, Times ethics - jumped in to the Henry Louis Gates fray with a Monday night comment on his nytimes.com blog. The effort was worthy of Barack Obama's ill-advised, uninformed foray.

Cohen wants Cambridge professor Henry Louis Gates to sue the Cambridge police for arresting him for disorderly conduct on July 16:

Last week in Cambridge, Mass., Sgt. James Crowley arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard, for disorderly conduct while responding to a reported break-in at Gates's home. The charges were subsequently dropped, and the city of Cambridge expressed regret, but Gates holds out the possibility of suing Crowley, the city or its Police Department. President Obama has urged calm and conciliation, and invited Gates and Crowley to have a beer and a chat at the White House. Should Gates sip or sue?

First off, Cohen has the timing wrong - Gates was arrested on July 16, 11 days after Cohen's July 27 posting, not "last week."

Cohen thought Gates (and everyone else) should start suing, arguing that a Gates lawsuit would be a valuable tool by which to probe "the troubled history of police interactions with African-Americans." He continued:

Gates should enjoy a cool one and then file suit, assuming he has legal grounds to do so. We Americans are often mocked for being overly litigious, but we are not nearly litigious enough. In the right circumstances, filing suit can be a way to pursue social justice, and that makes it thoroughly ethical.

Cohen switched on his DVD player to buttress his argument:

Indeed, our popular culture lionizes those who sue righteously. Paul Newman wins a medical malpractice case in "The Verdict." Julia Roberts takes on a polluting power company in "Erin Brockovich." John Travolta sues a company dumping toxic waste in "A Civil Action." (And these last two movies were based on actual people and cases.)

Cohen judged the entire episode through the single prism of race, totally ignoring the class issue that pitted a privileged, well-known Harvard professor who evidently engaged in contemptuous ranting against a blue-collar police officer. Cohen failed to address the fact that at least two of Crowley's black fellow officers back him up and not Gates. He even suggested there may be be sufficient grounds for a class-action suit, though on what grounds he didn't say:

Social change proceeds through the combination of many forces - legislation, litigation and public discourse among them. For Gates to contribute to this effort would be laudable. (And given the high - and disheartening - number of African-American men who, since Gates arrest, have described their own similar encounters with the police, the class-action suit [former public-defender David] Feige calls for might be sadly possible.)

The president has softened his initial response to this affair, withdrawing his remark at the press conference that "the Cambridge police acted stupidly." He now suggests that both Gates and Crowley "overreacted." Quite likely. But if Gates overreacted, he did so only as an individual, an outburst that might be obnoxious but is not criminal. There is no law against Contempt of Cop. If Crowley overreacted, he erred as a professional, perhaps abusing his office in a manner that is particularly fraught, given the history of African-Americans and the police. That's what should be examined in court.

At the moment, the commenters at Cohen's post are running solidly against Cohen, some in contemptuous fashion.

- Clay Waters is Editor of the MRC's TimesWatch site.