Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy Visits Law School for Series of Lectures


Student Experience Events Visitors
Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School, in Booth Hall

In March, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law welcomed Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School, for a week of lectures highlighting his scholarship in criminal law and the regulation of race relations.

The lively discussions ranged from controversial topics of today to historical perspectives of yesteryear. The first lecture, “Ideological Struggles on Campus: The Problem of Disinvitation,” focused on the recent trend of college and universities revoking their invitations to speakers who are deemed controversial, and whether institutions are valid in their decisions. “It’s not just campuses, this is an issue that arises in the foundation world, in the journalistic world…the problems with disinvitations.” Kennedy argued both sides of the debate, though he noted his own stance leans towards colleges sticking to their invitations. “A disinvitation will entail breaching a promise. It will upend the expectation of the speaker and expected audience,” he said. “By standing by an invitation under pressure and explaining clearly its reasons for doing so, an institution can model moral and intellectual courage and can show its willingness to examine the full array of thought, even thought it opposes.”

Still, Kennedy questioned organizations like the National Coalition Against Censorship and the ACLU, who often criticize campaigns of disinvitation. “They characterize [these campaigns] as engaged in censorship, censoriousness…bullying,” he said. “I have a problem with that. … Though I’m very close with these organizations and their allies, I view their [criticisms] as often tendentious. Why isn’t this just more speech? The champions of freedom of expression often say they are in favor of more speech, why isn’t this more speech?”

Kennedy’s second lecture, “Bringing the Federal Constitution to Campus in the Second Reconstruction” was a dynamic discussion, exclusively for Northwestern Pritzker Law’s student body.

In his final lecture, “Competing Perspectives on Civil Disobedience: Lewis F. Powell, Jr. versus Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Kennedy analyzed the perspectives of the former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and the civil rights icon. He highlighted the competing arguments of Justice Powell’s “A Lawyer Looks at Civil Disobedience,” and Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, which Dr. King wrote while incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama. The letter was a written response to eight white clergymen who told Black protestors to halt protests because their concerns would be addressed in court, a claim King said was insincere and willingly ignorant of police violence against peaceful protestors. Kennedy brought up one of Dr. King’s most poignant points in his letter: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negroes great stumbling block in the stride to freedom is not the white citizen’s counselor or the Klu Klux Klaner, but the white moderate,” Kennedy recited. “Who is more devoted to order than to justice, who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’ Who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a more convenient season.”

Powell, on the other hand, delivered a lecture at the Washington and Lee University School of Law in 1966, lamenting the practice of civil disobedience, calling it fundamentally inconsistent with the rule of law. “More than many of King’s distractors, Powell acknowledged some of the gross injustices to which King alluded in his letter,” said Kennedy. “One looks in vain, however, for a speech or an article by Lewis F. Powell, Jr. dedicated principally to repudiating white supremacism.” Powell’s sentiments mirrored the same sensibilities that Dr. King highlighted in his letter, Kennedy continued. “It was the sensibilities of the white moderate who’s more devoted to order than to justice.”

Kennedy teaches courses on contracts, criminal law, and the regulation of race relations. He served as a law clerk for Judge J. Skelly Wright of the United States Court of Appeals and for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court. He has written several publications, including the award-winning book “Race, Crime, and Law.” His most recent book, “Say It Loud!: On Race, Law, History, and Culture” was published last year, and documents the race problem in the United States. Kennedy is a member of the American Law Institute, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Association.

The lecture series was co-sponsored by the Black Law Student Association and Diversity Coalition.