Saturday, November 28, 2009

Unanswered Questions Indeed

As the news reports, there are "plenty of questions" after Tiger Woods got in a car crash that sent him to the hospital. According to the story, Tiger hit a fire hydrant and a tree right near his own driveway, and his wife Elin had to smash a rear window with a golf club to get him out.

But the story is asking the wrong questions. "Where was he going at 2:25 am Friday? Why was there no word from the Woods' camp for nearly 13 hours?" That's not what golfers want to know. There's only one question on golfers' minds:

What club did she use?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

That Holiday Spirit

With the holiday season officially kicking off tomorrow, an interesting decision arrives from the Third Circuit. The question: can a school district adopt a policy forbidding religious music in holiday celebrations, including school concerts?

The South Orange-Maplewood school district in New Jersey adopted such a policy in an effort to achieve religious neutrality. After receiving a complaint from a concerned parent following a holiday concert that included traditional Christmas carols, the district's Director of Fine Arts indicated that schools should avoid music representing any religious holiday of any faith and suggested instead secular seasonal selections of the "Frosty the Snowman" type. Needless to say, this decision raised concerns with different parents, who brought a lawsuit.

Although these kinds of issues have become excessively polarizing, this case has a fairly straightfoward answer, which all the judges (including appointees of Presidents Carter, Clinton, and G.W. Bush) reached. Although the court was handicapped by having to apply the somewhat tangled official doctrines surrounding Establishment Clause issues, the decision follows from pretty basic distinctions.

A school's decision not to have its students present religious music in the holiday concert is different from the decision to have the students sing such music. The school district can hardly be obliged to present religious music in school. If the school district's policy violated the Constitution, it would follow that an individual school's similar decision would too, with the impossible result that every school's choral director would be legally required to present Christmas music in the school concert, not to mention music requested by other religions represented among the school's families.

Of course no one is trampling on a parent's right to have their children exposed to religious holiday music -- and children will get ample such exposure. Just not in the South Orange-Maplewood schools. Just because you have a right to teach your children something doesn't mean you have a right to have the school teach that same thing, if it doesn't want to.

Sigh. I remember my high school holiday concerts fondly, with I and the other Jewish kids cheerfully singing Christmas songs and not worrying about it. The South Orange-Maplewood policy does seem unnecessarily churlish. But it's constitutional.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Finally, I'm Jon Siegel

After several years of trying, I am finally Jon Siegel. Of course, that's always been my name, but that name hasn't always been primarily me. Who decides who has the number one claim to being Jon Siegel? Google, of course.

For quite a while, the primary meaning of "Jon Siegel", as determined by Google, was a certain Jon Siegel, Ph.D. and Vice President (Technology Transfer) of the Object Management Group. Not only does he own (I had to be satisfied with the somewhat less appealing, but he was on the top of Google's Jon Siegel chart for quite a few years. Unfortunately, he had multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer, but fortunately, his "multiple myeloma blog" reveals that he experienced complete remission several years ago, and today he's still listed on the executive page at Object Management Group.

In any event, while I wish my namesake the best of health, I was happy to see myself creeping up the search results over the past year or two. At first I was hardly even on the first page of a Jon Siegel search (although I was always pretty high in the search rankings for Jonathan Siegel), but things got better and better until I recently became, pretty reliably, the number one result in a search for either Jon Siegel or Jonathan Siegel. I think it's probably the tax pages that helped -- I know they're a little eccentric, but they are the most-visited part of my website.

I'm still only on page 13 of a search for just "Siegel" -- right behind Rosenthal, Siegel & Muenkel, LLP. That's what you get for having a common name, and I have two of them. But at least I own the combination -- for now.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

He Was It

On weekends, even law professor bloggers get to relax and think about less serious topics.

I caught Michael Jackson's new film, This Is It. What a pleasure. Not only is it your chance to see Jackson perform his greatest hits one last time, it's your chance to see a superb craftsman at work.

The film consists of Jackson and his backups and crew rehearsing for the tour he would have performed if not for his untimely death. The film shows that, once you get Jackson away from all of the hoopla, and weirdness, and scandals that surrounded his life, and put him in his true milieu, where he works on doing that for which he was celebrated, no one could match him. Even though he's not giving it his all in this movie, because it's just rehearsal, not actual performance, his dancing is still amazing -- miles ahead of his backups, who are probably more than twenty years younger than him. And he brings and intensity and intelligence to his professional work that you couldn't see in his interviews during life.

In this day of endless parades of not-especially-talented people who are celebrated for being celebrated, or for showing us the "reality" of their lives, it's a pleasure to see someone who truly had the talent to back up his fame. He wasn't the King of Pop for nothing.

Friday, November 20, 2009


The University of California has put faculty and staff on furloughs amounting to an average 8 per cent pay cut, and yesterday voted to raise student by 32 per cent.

That's a huge increase. It's worth noting that, even after the increase, UC tuition will still be a bargain at $10,302 -- my own university charges a whopping $41,610 for undergraduates -- but still, a 32 percent increase in any price has to cause some severe sticker shock.

Professors have a funny relationship with tuition. On the one hand, I am stunned by the tuition my law school charges -- $42,205 -- and I feel we should at least show some restraint in increasing it. On the other hand, it pays my salary. My school doesn't have that big an endowment, so we are primarily tuition-dependent. If we want to restrain tuition increases, we have to restrain my salary too. So I'm caught in a conflict of interest.

Professors also have a funny relationship with furloughs. Thankfully, we don't have any at my school, but I wonder how professors at state schools are managing. An 8 per cent furlough presumably means that they're being instructed to take about 20 days off a year. (Apparently the actual number ranges from 11 to 26, with higher-salary employees expected to take more.) But given the way professors work, days off are pretty meaningless. We already have considerable control over our time -- apart from time when we're required to be in class, we work as much as we want to and take days off when we want to. I hasten to add that for most of us, including me, that ends up meaning working almost all the time, but the point is that getting extra time off doesn't take the sting out of a furlough. It's not like getting unpaid vacation time, it's just unpaid work time.

Of course, the life of a professor is so good that it's churlish to complain that furlough days probably won't actually get taken. I'm not expecting any sympathy with the fact that we already have so much flexibility that it's meaningless to give us more. But still, an 8 per cent pay cut has to hurt. My sympathies go out to the UC students and faculty.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Yes, Virginia, There is Law in Cyberspace

One annoying feature of Internet law is "Internet exceptionalism" -- the assumption that everything must be different if it's on the Internet. For example, as CNN reports, Courtney Love is being sued for sending a defamatory tweet out on Twitter (she accused a clothing designer of being a drug dealer). CNN claims that the suit confronts "new and unaddressed areas of American law."

Hardly. Look, there have always been lots of different ways of spreading defamatory messages. The Marquess of Queensbury left his calling card with a porter for delivery to Oscar Wilde, and wrote on the card, "To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite [sic]." Because the Marquess wrote this allegation down, because the porter saw it, it was a public libel. The law deals with such things.

The Internet is exciting and new, but there is nothing "new and unaddressed" about the notion of being responsible for written defamatory statements. The statements can be in books, newspapers, letters, on calling cards, or, yes, on the Internet. Accusing someone of commiting a crime is libel per se. "I only did it on the Internet" is no defense. Let's stop imagining that everything must be different in cyberspace.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Future of War

Yesterday, I heard a RadioLab show featuring a survey question that journalist and teacher John Horgan has been asking people: will humans ever permanently stop fighting wars?

Horgan believes the answer is yes, even though the great majority of his survey respondents disagree. I have to disagree too. It seems to me that the answer arises from a game theoretical approach.

The higher the percentage of humans who stop fighting wars, the more advantage, I would think, would accrue to those who are prepared to keep fighting them. If 95% of humanity gives up war, the remaining militaristic 5% would have a big edge.

Will the 95% forever keep a standing army big enough to deter fighting from the remaining 5%? And never use it? Hard to believe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Death Penalty

John Allen Muhammad, also known as the D.C. Sniper, was executed yesterday. I have to say that I don't particularly care.

On the one hand, there are certainly some good arguments against the death penalty. Most notably, there is the disturbing possibility that it results in the execution of the innocent. Given the number of innocent people convicted of crimes, it seems likely that at least some innocent people get executed. Execution is also very expensive -- the death penalty can add hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to the cost of a case, and it could be difficult to reduce that amount substantially without increasing the risk of an incorrect result. (There's an argument that should appeal to conservatives -- instead of arguing the injustice or immorality of the death penalty, its opponents should try to portray the death penalty as just another big, expensive, mistake-filled government program.) I wouldn't have been bothered to learn that Muhammed got a life sentence; I don't feel some strong need to have him die.

On the other hand, I have always felt that the amount of attention and opposition the dealth penalty receives is excessive, particularly in relation to the number of people it affects. In the entire period from 1976 to 2005, 1000 people were executed in the United States. That's about 33 people per year. Meanwhile, car accidents kill over 40,000 people per year, and tobacco kills over 400,000 people per year -- in the United States. Yes, death penalty deaths are different in character, but in the grand scheme of things, I think activists might do better to devote their time and energies to a cause that affects more people.

And in any event, if we are going to have the death penalty, it seems that Muhammed is the kind of person who should get it. There didn't seem to be any doubt about his guilt, and his crime involved terrorizing society and killing multiple people for monetary reasons. So while I wasn't feeling a strong need for him to die, neither do I find it especially disturbing.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Course Evaluations

My faculty voted on Friday to change the course evaluation form that we ask students to fill out. It's a small thing, but that didn't stop us from debating it for nearly two hours.

The length of the debate partly reflects our idiosyncratic love of long meetings -- we seem to have a Law of Conservation of Meeting Length, so that we find something to discuss regardless of the actual magnitude of a proposal's importance -- but it also reflects the fact that, although a change in the course evaluation form may seem trivial, it can actually have subtle and important implications.

For example, we voted to ask students to rate professors on their "ability to present the subject matter in a clear and organized manner." That seems pretty straightfoward, and it won't bother me, because the students have always regarded my teaching style as clear and organized. But what if a professor believes that the essence of the Socratic method is to revel in the ambiguities of the subject matter and to require the students to figure out the answers for themselves, with no clear guidance from the instructor? I can certainly remember professors who ran their classes that way. (Although I may be giving them too much credit for thinking about their teaching styles -- perhaps they were just intrinsically unclear and disorganized). They will be disadvantaged.

Also, we deleted an inquiry about the professor's "enthusiasm." That seems to me to be an important component of good teaching. I was sorry to see that one go.

So while it might hardly seem worth debating, the centralized choice of the specification of the components of good teaching actually has subtle but important impacts on academic freedom. Maybe our debate was worth it after all.

Another Guest Slot

Having come off my guest appearnce at Concurring Opinions, I'll be spending this month guesting at PrawfsBlawg. Faithful readers can follow me here or there.