Mari Matsuda

Mari Matsuda

: Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: APECEpic


* Former Professor of law at Georgetown University.
* Leading legal architect of speech codes in universities.
* Her courses emphasize “social justice” activism over study of the law

A self-described “activist scholar,” Mari Matsuda was a professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center. There she specialized in “feminist theory” and “critical race theory.” Professor Matsuda is an architect of the legal rationale behind campus speech codes, which attempted to outlaw “fighting words” in American universities in the late 1980s and early 1990s before they were declared unconstitutional.

Along with leftwing law professors Kimberly Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and Charles Lawrence, Professor Matsuda contributed to the volume Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment, a 1993 text that would become the legal cornerstone of the movement to restrict campus speech. Among other claims, the book argued that “areas of law ostensibly designed to advance the cause of racial equality [like the First Amendment] . . . often benefit powerful white men.” Judging the First Amendment to be too lenient with respect to “hate speech” — a category that evidently included all statements offensive to groups other than white males — Professor Matsuda argued that such speech was “qualitatively different” from other varieties of offensive speech.

Arbitrary censorship of hate speech, according to Matsuda, was therefore preferable to the potentially devastating effects it might have on its ostensibly defenseless targets. Racist speech, Matsuda wrote, “is best treated as a sui generis category, presenting an idea so historically untenable, so dangerous, and so tied to perpetuation of violence and degradation of the very classes of human beings who are least equipped to respond that it is properly treated as outside the realm of protected discourse.” Not all hate speech was actionable, however: “Expressions of hatred, revulsion, and anger directed against members of historically dominant groups by subordinated-group members are not criminalized by the definition of racist hate messages used here.” Hence, hate speech leveled by black Americans against whites may be “troubling,” Matsuda explained, but, in view of the latter’s “historically dominant” role, permissible.

As noted earlier, many of the speech code laws advocated by Matsuda were eventually struck down as unconstitutional. But they remain preserved at schools like Matsuda’s own Georgetown, where a broad ban is in effect on any “offensive act which is intentional or persistent” and “which is directed at specific individuals or groups of individuals, in such a way as to make an individual or group feel intimidated or unwelcome because of their actual or perceived color, disability, ethnicity, gender, national origin, race, religion, and/or sexual orientation.”

Matsuda teaches three courses at Georgetown — all of them distinguished by their unmistakable preference for activist recruitment over legal learning.

This tendency is perhaps most pronounced in a course called “Organizing for Social Change: Anti-Subordination Theory and Practice,” co-taught by Matsuda and fellow law professor Marilyn Sneiderman. “This class is designed for the lawyer as change agent,” explains a description of the course. Having imbibed “readings from critical race theory, feminist legal theory, anti-colonial theory, peace studies, and other social justice traditions,” each student “is expected to complete a social change organizing project as part of the course requirements.” There are no alternatives to activism, for as the course description cautions: “Students who take this class should have in mind a social justice project that includes some form of public outreach, education, or institution building.”

One such project was participation in a 2003 rally of leftwing student demonstrators who convened in front of the Supreme Court Building to condemn a lawsuit brought by several white students against the University of Michigan‘s affirmative action policies. In the eyes of the demonstrators, the white plaintiffs were bent on resurrecting segregation: “Jim Crow, hell no!” they shouted. “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to segregate!” Regarding the raucous scene with approval from her perch on a nearby barricade was Mari Matsuda. Outfitted in a black cap and gown, she told a Washington Post reporter that affirmative action was essential to her job: “I can’t do my job as a university professor in a monocultural classroom.”

A similarly activist methodology operates in “Peacemaking,” another Georgetown course taught by Matsuda. In her description of this survey course, Matsuda explains that it “evolved from conversations with students who are interested in taking peacemaking seriously” in the aftermath of 9-11. This course aspires to train a new generation of lawyer-activists in the fundamentals of opposing American military intervention, and to “stimulate critical thought … about the role of lawyers in peacemaking.”

Matsuda’s views on war and peace are illumined in a 2003 letter to the Boston Review. With respect to anti-American terrorism, the professor insisted that “Our job is to ask how we [the United States] participated in its creation, and how we feed it still by choosing militarism and global inequality over peace and global justice.” Any discussion of the war on terror, Matsuda declared, must be above all a discussion of American “militarism.” She wrote: “Militarism—choosing arms and battlegrounds and dead bodies before we ask how a coming war will position us yet again as the target of someone else’s unchecked fury—is the big story of how we came to this place of danger in which, we are told, the Bill of Rights is a luxury.”

Even Matsuda’s one course with a discernible connection to law—an “Asian Americans and Legal Ideology Seminar”— places “particular emphasis” on “political theory.” Presented as an exploration of the “Asian American experience,” the course dwells on the “relationship between law and social change, and the limits of liberal legal ideology.” Students enrolled in the seminar also examine how Asian Americans have fared within the American legal system—a subject on which Matsuda has been outspoken. In an address to the Asian Law Caucus in 1990, Matsuda described 20th-century America as a “land where racism found a home,” and where anti-Asian hatred is fueled by the “real villains—the corporations and politicians who put profits before human needs.” It is owing to America’s widespread anti-Asian prejudices, Matsuda concluded, that “we [Asians] are underrepresented in the real power positions.”

In 2008, Matsuda returned to teach at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii.

© Copyright 2024,