What It's Like When an Online Mob Goes after Your Job
The first four days were absolute hell, then I had a surreal zoom with Georgetown's dean.
When I launched this newsletter, I committed to writing at least one op-ed-length post per week on a range of issues, from the Supreme Court and constitutional law to travel, movies, and policy/culture “deep cuts” I wouldn’t necessarily be publishing in traditional media. It’s only been two months, but I think I’m achieving that design—though I welcome your comments and suggestions. (Normally I only open comments to paid subscribers, but for this post I’ll allow unpaid too—though you do have to be a subscriber of some kind! Here are the other benefits of subscribing.)
Obviously my launch aimed to take advantage of the 15 minutes of fame I was getting from my Georgetown resignation, but I made a conscious decision not to be typecast as a poster boy for cancel culture. Still, I’ve been given a platform and an opportunity to shine the light on the rot afflicting elite institutions. My “lived experience” with both online mobs and the illiberal takeover of academia has given me a unique perspective, that I feel an obligation to share from time to time. And to be honest, I’m still working through the after-effects of the emotional roller-coaster I rode the first six months of the year. So I hope you’ll indulge me as I describe certain aspects of my scandal/suspension/reinstatement/resignation.
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If you don’t know the background to my story, I summarized it in my inaugural Shapiro’s Gavel post. As I wrote there, January 28, 2022, the day that my tweet from the night before went viral was one of the worst days of my life. A Twitter troll named Mark Joseph Stern, Slate’s legal correspondent and my long-time self-appointed antagonist, took advantage of my inartfully phrased tweet to go after my head—or, more precisely, my job. (Charlie Cooke sent up Stern’s disingenuous denial that he was trying to get me fired.) My friend Dan McLaughlin did a characteristically thorough job describing and critiquing the mob action Stern orchestrated, calling it an “immoral, dishonest, and scurrilous smear campaign.”
Yet I survived that day, even after Georgetown Law Dean Bill Treanor put out a statement calling my tweets “appalling” and mischaracterizing what I said as a “suggestion that the best Supreme Court nominee could not be a Black [very much sic] woman.” The next day, the Black Law Students Association, joined by many other groups and individuals—some of whom we’ve since learned were pressured to sign or whose name appeared without their knowledge—issued a series of demands, led of course by the demand that my employment contract be revoked. But thanks both to public and private efforts by my allies and supporters—most of them without my asking—I also survived that day. Treanor let the campus community know that Friday afternoon that there would be no decision about my situation before the weekend.
That was a reprieve of sorts; surviving the first 24-48 hours is key in cancellation campaigns. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet, and indeed the emotional toll was beginning to manifest physically: not just sleepless nights, but I lost my appetite and developed gastrointestinal issues. My wife was also, of course, affected. We tried not to let convey our worries to our two young sons (then six and almost four), but kids can sense when something’s not quite right with Mommy and Daddy, so they displayed some unusual behavior and even mild vomiting.
On Saturday, January 29, I asked to meet with Treanor. That was set up for noon the next day. I thought it would be better to meet in person, but Georgetown was maintaining extreme Covid measures such that masks were required even for small gatherings of vaccinated people—which mandate apparently continues on the main campus this fall—so that would’ve been even more surreal and impersonal than a zoom. Accordingly, on Sunday, January 30 at 12pm ET (high noon!), I had a zoom with Dean Treanor and Professor Rosa Brooks, the associate dean for “centers and institutes” (because I was hired to direct the Center for the Constitution—and she had contacted me Thursday with sympathetic advice).
I opened with the following remarks, which I drafted in the wee hours that morning:
Thank you for meeting with me. I wanted to do this to clear the air, because I think it’s unfortunate that this whole surreal episode has been unfolding without any dialogue between us.
First, I want to personally reiterate what I wrote to you and the faculty: I sincerely and deeply apologize for my tweets. One in particular, and especially three words there, were sloppy, careless, inartful . . . many adjectives. I unwisely wrote those words late at night Wednesday, and quickly deleted and apologized for them in the sober light of Thursday morning. I recognized my mistake immediately and tried to remedy it, and I thank Rosa for the compassion she showed in reaching out and advising me on just that course of action.
Rosa, and many others, reached out to me empathetically without necessarily agreeing with my underlying view about the propriety of Joe Biden’s selection criteria. That’s the definition of intellectual honesty and good will, the epitome of grace—all values that the Law Center and University stand for, which is why I want to join this community.
It’s the opposite of what my online (and offline) enemies have done, willfully misconstruing my ill-chosen words, seeing them, unreasonably, in the worst possible light. Twisting my mistake to accuse me of what in our world is perhaps the greatest sin of all. I hope you can appreciate that I’ve been acting in good faith throughout this whole ordeal, trying not to further inflame things. I’ve turned down numerous requests for media interviews, including on Fox News this morning.
But second, regardless of all that, and as I wrote you in requesting this meeting, I’m keenly aware that this roiling mess has created a difficult situation for you, one that appears to be a no-win. That’s what I want to work on with you today. Is there a solution we can find to move Georgetown (and me) beyond last week’s events in a way that maximally preserves our reputations? I very much do still want to join this community, and am willing to make extraordinary efforts, across the various platforms you and I have access to, to allay the concerns of faculty and students and indeed to move the national conversation in a positive direction.
After all, you hired me for a reason, and that reason was a record of rigor, excellence, and integrity in support of the Constitution’s protection for individual liberty and legal equality. I hope you can agree with me that that reason wasn’t destroyed by one bad tweet.
So where do we go from here?
Treanor, who was in shirt sleeves with an open collar, looked pained, and asked for my suggestion of where we should go. I said that principles of free speech, and the university’s own policy, protected my expression, so while I was open to mutual statements and such, I should be allowed to take up my job with no further ado. I said that he had muddied the waters by mischaracterizing my tweet and thus advancing the notion that a maliciously unreasonable reading of my tweet as racist was its best reading. Nonetheless, and despite this unfortunate start to my Georgetown, I said that I was prepared to do my job and be a better communicator in future.
Treanor asked for the context on how I came to tweet what I did. I explained that I was in Austin for some meetings and a friend’s celebratory dinner, had returned to my hotel room in a “festive and feisty” mood, and after scrolling through Twitter before going to bed—and getting increasingly upset about President Biden’s racist and sexist selection criteria—decided to fire off a hot take.
Prof. Brooks asked whether I could be effective given the offense I’d caused. I explained that I could, because I still had my professional skills, networks, and media contacts, and that students and faculty who didn’t want to interact with me didn’t have to. [The diversicrat inquisitors would eventually use this point, which I reiterated when they interviewed me, to claim that I would be denying “access” to some students’ educational opportunities.] She asked whether I was open to issuing a further apology, perhaps in the context of “structural racism.” Biting my tongue about the reference to critical race theory, I explained that I’d already said enough (see Bari’s Weiss’s piece) and that, at this point, any further statements would have to be jointly issued in the context of the continuance of my employment.
The zoom lasted less than half an hour. The next day, Monday, January 31, Treanor declined to take my suggestion and vindicate the values of free speech and grace. Instead he announced that even as I would be onboarded the next day—as I was supposed to under my contract—I would be immediately placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into whether my social-media comments violated university policies on harassment, antidiscrimination, and professional conduct.
My personal hell had ended, only for my purgatory to begin.