The Faulk Files: Why You Can’t Believe Everything You Read
A series of events during October and early November 2014 jump-started an important, complex conversation on race, diversity, and student experiences at the Louisiana State University Law Center. The Faulk Files pertain to coverage of the diversity initiative in the November 2014 issue of The Civilian, a self-described “student publication for the LSU Law Center community.” For background and to place the Faulk Files in perspective, visit the LSU Law Center Diversity page. For the entirety of the Faulk Files, click here.
The discussion began with my October 20 letter to the Law Center’s administration and faculty, in which I praised the school for increasing numerical diversity but questioned its institutional commitment to fostering diversity beyond numbers. Shortly thereafter, LSU Black Law Students Association President Andrew Hairston and I submitted an editorial to Huffington Post discussing the need to openly discuss race in the legal academy and our experiences at the Law Center. The editorial, “Breaking the Code of Silence on Race in Law School,” ran on the evening of October 23. Earlier in the afternoon on October 23, LSU Law Center Chancellor Jack M. Weiss announced the appointment of a diversity task force to address the concerns I raised on October 20. Because I sent my letter only to Law Center administration, voting members of the Law Center faculty, and pertinent LSU administrators, students were left to surmises and suspicions upon receiving Weiss’s task force announcement. Indeed, the students appointed to the task force had never been asked to join and were caught off guard by their appointment to a task force of which they had no prior knowledge.
The task force announcement reached LSU’s undergraduate newspaper, The Daily Reveille, which ran two articles on the task force and diversity at the Law Center. The first article focused on my October 20 letter and Weiss’s task force announcement. Weiss and I were both interviewed and quoted in the article. The second article centered on a narrative involving an incident in which an African American student member of the diversity task force had been the victim of violence and racial epithets during a 2012 altercation with a white LSU Law student. The article, told largely from the victim’s perspective, noted that the alleged culprit of the 2012 incident was not subject to discipline because the Law Center student ethics committee had determined racial epithets were not violative of the Code of Student Professional Responsibility.
In the November 2014 issue of The Civilian, Editor-in-Chief Julie Faulk penned a front-page story, “In Response to Recent Publications on Diversity at the Law Center.” In it, Faulk alleged the earlier coverage had “unfortunately only presented one side” of the diversity story. She sought to overview earlier stories and “present the other” side of the story. At the time suspecting Faulk was not writing a balanced article discussing the substance and merits of my concerns or the Reveille reports, I declined her request for an interview. The substance of Faulk’s story ranged from white-privilege argle-bargle to propaganda and disinformation.
Propaganda and Disinformation: LSU Law Center’s Head of Public Relations Finds Opportunity in Her Inbox
Based on records received in response to a public records request and through other sources, my suspicion that Faulk was not planning a balanced article was correct. The following reflects information contained in the documents I received.
Records show Faulk wrote the article in collaboration with Karen Soniat, LSU Law Center Director of Communications and External Relations. By the time I was able to respond to Faulk’s interview request, she had already drafted the story’s substance and submitted it to Soniat for pre-publication review. According to the November 5, 2014, email Faulk sent Soniat when requesting review, Faulk knew she “may be personally attacking Alagood and will make the situation worse, but I feel like it needs to be said[.]” The situation apparently being students expressing concerns with diversity at the Law Center. But I digress. Soniat provided feedback the next morning, according to an email from Soniat to Faulk sent the morning of November 6.
On the evening of November 5, I responded to Faulk and declined her request for an interview. We had an extensive off-the-record conversation in which I discussed the merits of my letter and the Reveille articles. Although I did not consent to a quotable interview, I did provide Faulk with a statement: “I cannot and will not comment until the Chancellor and administration agree to meet with student leaders and faculty, as I requested in my initial letter. The Chancellor’s refusal to acknowledge my substantive concerns and unwillingness to engage professionally is an inappropriate position for a public university administrator.” Indeed, at that point in time and still today, LSU Law Center Chancellor Jack M. Weiss refused to acknowledge me or the substance of my concerns, a refusal discussed in more detail on the LSU Law Center Diversity page.
After receiving my statement, Faulk sent it to Soniat “to give ya’ll a chance to respond.” In an email informing Soniat I had refused an on-the-record interview, Faulk described my concerns with student diversity and opinion on Weiss’s refusal to allow students to present their concerns at a faculty committee meeting as “attacks” to which Faulk “would love to have a response.” Soniat wrote back on the morning of Friday November 7, “Will get back to u asap.” Shortly thereafter, Soniat set up a phone call with Faulk, presumably to provide a response.
On Wednesday November 12, Faulk’s story, “In Response to Recent Publications on Diversity at the Law Center,” ran on the front page of The Civilian. The oft-rambling article made no attempt to gather facts. Rather, it relied on surmises, suspicions, and baseless inferences to paint an inaccurate picture of how diversity came to be a topic of discussion and reform at the LSU Law Center. The article blindly relied on Law Center administration’s numerical comparisons of student diversity at the LSU Law Center with peers in the Southeastern Conference (a football conference comprised of schools located in former slave states), most or all of which were segregated throughout much of the twentieth century. The article simply made up facts where it had none, going as far as to presume my mindset and that of the Reveille reporter who wrote about the Law Center.
Faulk, with edits and input from Soniat, disguised propaganda and disinformation as unbiased “news.” Soniat and LSU Law Center Chancellor Jack M. Weiss then used the Civilian article, rife with inaccuracies and developed in collusion with the Law Center’s administration, as a basis for further undermining the credibility of students who dared speak out about discrimination at the Law Center.
On November 12, Soniat sent The Civilian to LSU main campus and system administrators who had been monitoring developments since my October 20 letter. Among the officials were LSU President F. King Alexander, Provost Stuart Bell, and Vice Provost for Diversity Dereck Rovaris, Jr. According to Soniat’s email, “Chancellor Weiss wanted to be sure” the administrators were aware of the November Civilian issue. The Faulk story (and a column by Neal Favorite, drawing upon charts generated by Law Center administration), according to Soniat, “present a far more balanced picture of the state of our efforts on diversity at the Law Center.”
Soniat failed to mention her involvement in the Faulk story.
Weiss went even further, writing to the administrators, “Just to clarify[,] The Civilian is the student-written and student-edited newspaper at the Law Center[.] These articles represent the student authors’ responses to the Reveille articles and related developments[.]”
Weiss’s email is obfuscatory at best. Whether the Faulk article was “student-written” is debatable, but it was most definitely not “student-edited.” Of course, Weiss merely said The Civilian is student edited. Perhaps he did not know of his senior public relations officer’s role, but Soniat was the among the recipients of Weiss’s email and appeared to have done nothing to correct his misleading statement.
LSU Vice Provost Dereck Rovaris, Jr., wrote back to Weiss and Soniat that he was “encouraged by [the articles’] clarity on these issues. These are excellent responses to the issues at hand.”
The Civilian Article: White-Privilege Argle-Bargle and Neutralization by Denying the Injury
Faulk’s Civilian story opened with a notation that she was writing to shed light on “just the published articles,” a reference to the Huffington Post editorial I co-wrote and the two Reveille stories on diversity at the Law Center. Nevertheless, Faulk’s coverage went beyond a simple expression of viewpoint. The story was fraught with, dare I say it, white privilege.
Faulk used scare quotes around the term microagression, thereby casting doubt on the validity of a racially-tinged incident involving an off-hand remark by a white professor aimed at black students gathering for a Black History Month celebration. The incident in question involved an older, white professor (later identified to me as LSU Law Chancellor Jack M. Weiss) observing a group of black law students gathered in the Law Center lobby and asking “What is this, a craps game?” before disappearing into an elevator. LSU Black Law Students Association President Andrew Hairston and I described the incident in our Huffington Post editorial and noted that while Weiss may not have intended animosity, his comment was nonetheless harmful. Indeed, as Hairston and I wrote, “[c]asually comparing a gathering of black students to ‘a craps game’ . . . is more than a microaggression. The comparison is old-school racial stereotyping. The stereotypical image of a black man ‘shooting dice while speaking ungrammatical English,’ according to Professor Leland Ware, has a name — ‘coon.'”
Shielded by her privilege, perhaps not recognizing the power of words and punctuation, Faulk’s insertion of scare quotes around the word microaggression is textbook neutralization by denying the injury felt by the victims of racial stereotyping. But Faulk went further. She wrote that the “students interpreted” the microaggression as such, “whether correctly or not,” thereby asserting the incident was not objectively harmful and the students’ perceptions of the incident as harmful was doubtful. Faulk’s story continued to use opinion masked as fact in order to not only undermine my observations on diversity but also discredit the victim of the 2012 altercation’s retelling of his experience.
Dissecting Faulk’s Civilian article further would be what litigators object to as cumulative. Whether unaware of her privilege as a white female in a Southern state, Faulk’s article denied victims’ dignity by criticizing those brave enough speak out against injustice as creating a “negative image” of the school and failing to “represent something bigger than ourselves.” Faulk’s hogwash attempt to undermine student concerns with diversity made my point more effectively than I ever could.
Faulk’s Failure to Accept Responsibility: “My Words Were Misinterpreted as Criticism”
LSU Law Professor Elizabeth Carter responded in part to Faulk’s story in a November 14, 2014 letter to the editors of The Civilian and The Reveille. Carter, writing in her personal capacity, called into question both publications’ unquestioning reliance of numbers and data provided by Law Center administration. Carter questioned why the editors implicitly agreed with Law Center administration’s comparison of LSU to other Southeastern Conference schools and whether the editors had fact checked the data provided regarding faculty diversity at the Law Center.
On November 21, thirteen LSU Law Center faculty members signed onto a similar letter to the editors of The Civilian and The Daily Reveille. That letter, drafted by Professor Christopher Tyson, described the publications’ stories as “in many ways contribut[ing] to [a] pattern” of revictimization in which a student’s willingness to speak about his or her experiences is met with censorship, compounding discrimination, and fear of retribution. “Issues of racism, sexism or homophobia have never been solved by closing ranks and marginalizing the messengers,” the letter said. “Laudable progress with diversity should never be used to muffle or silence inquiries into the extent to which there remains hostility towards members of the institutional community based on their identity.”
Just over half an hour after receiving the November 21 letter to the editor, Faulk forwarded the letter to Soniat with a note that Faulk “still [was] not sure what their issue with [her] letter” was. Soniat almost immediately forwarded the letter and Faulk’s note to Weiss.
In her email response to the professors who signed onto the letter, Faulk painted herself as the victim of a great misunderstanding. She claimed to not know “which specific statements” she made that were harmful. Faulk wrote that she sought clarification on the specific statements so she could “improve upon [her] writing.” When Tyson responded that he could speak only to his reasons for writing the letter and proposed he and Faulk meet to discuss in person, Faulk insisted on a written statement. She wrote back to Tyson, in pertinent part, “I would prefer a written response, so I can concretely identify which statements in my article criticized Mr. Barnes [see LSU Law Center Diversity for discussion of the Barnes incident]. Having it in writing,” Faulk continued, “will allow me to spend time comparing your thoughts with my article. Also, I would like to be able to share it with my staff to show them how my words were misinterpreted as criticism to ensure this does not occur with their writing.” Faulk declined Tyson’s offer to meet in person.
In a follow-up email, Tyson explained to Faulk that the insight she sought was conducive to conversation, not email. Faulk wrote back again shrilly playing victim: “[N]o one has yet to point out to me any factual inaccuracies in my statements. Also, no one has pointed out specific ways I criticized Mr. Barnes. I feel almost at a loss since no one has told me what the specific issue with my article is. If you do not have a time to write a response, I understand, but it is very difficult to receive negative feedback without receiving the basis for the feedback.” Scorned by criticism, Faulk retreated to the age-old shelter of denial.
On November 23, 2014, Faulk sent a last email to the professors who dared critique her story on diversity. To that email, Faulk attached a bizarre, rambling, multi-colored document (perhaps she was inspired by the first-year legal writing “rainbow” exercise) to which she had copied and pasted her chain of emails with faculty members and her own commentary. I attach the rainbow letter hereto without comment.