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The DA Thinks You Are Liberal

August 8, 2011

Whether professors lean left or are so liberal that they are biased is much debated in higher education and in American society. But in what may be a new twist, the Nevada Supreme Court last week upheld the exclusion of a faculty member from a jury. His disqualifying trait? Being a professor.

The ruling came in an appeal of a drug sale conviction in a case in which a professor was rejected for jury service. The professor was one of the peremptory challenges by the prosecution. While no reason needs to be given for peremptory challenges, in this case, the defense argued that minority citizens were being excluded with peremptory challenges. (The professor is identified in the court documents as a Middle Eastern computer science professor.)

The prosecutor then defended the exclusion by saying that it had nothing to do with the potential juror's ethnicity, but rather with his being a professor. "Professors are notoriously liberal," the prosecutor said, according to the Supreme Court ruling, adding that "I just don’t like them on my juries, period."

The Nevada Supreme Court's decision doesn't explore the issue of whether professors can be presumed to be liberal. Rather, it faults the defense for failing to challenge the exclusion sufficiently at the time it was made, or for presenting new evidence that the argument was pretextual or otherwise illegitimate.

Gregory Brown, president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance (the statewide affiliate of the American Association of University Professors), said he was sorry to hear a prosecutor make blanket assumptions about faculty members. He said that, despite the stereotypes about faculty members, most of them teach in career-oriented fields (business, health professions and so forth) and that they have a range of political views. It's wrong to presume them liberal "just like we wouldn't make snap assumptions about prosecutors," he said.

To the extent that many faculty members are engaged citizens, that should be viewed as "salutary and ought to be respected," he said.

Brown, a professor of history at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said that the prosecutor's assumption was particularly disturbing because many faculty members at UNLV work with local police, applying fields such as criminology and anthropology in ways that help the judicial system. "It seems utterly inconsistent" with what the prosecutor said. "What's really bothersome is the presumption that higher education faculty aren't very seriously invested in the criminal justice system."

Neil Gross, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia who has worked on numerous studies of faculty politics, said that while he is not an expert on the legal issues, he found the case surprising. "The social science data show that computer science professors are among the least liberal of all academics," he said. "This raises the question of why the defense did not object to the challenge as pretextual right from the start."

 

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