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The internet wants Penn Law prof Amy Wax fired (again) — this time for her comments on the Kavanaugh hearing

The incident raises the question: What is a law professor's responsibility to students in the time of #MeToo?

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington.Read moreTOM WILLIAMS / AP

Nearly 4,000 people have signed a petition calling for Penn Law professor Amy Wax's firing after she aired her grievances about the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

"I think it violates principles of basic fair play for her to be bringing this up," Wax said in an interview posted last week with Brown professor Glenn Loury for his YouTube series, The Glenn Show. "I think she should have held her tongue — if I were her, I would have. I think basic dignity and fairness dictate that, you know, it's too late, Ms. Ford, even if there would have been consequences to bitching about it at the time."

Wax suggested Ford, a professor and research psychologist, was exaggerating her trauma, saying that even if Kavanaugh did engage in a "momentary act of recklessness," that it "didn't create any permanent harm, except through this manufactured idea that this is such a horrible, traumatic thing."

The petition, launched by the advocacy organization Care2 — which focuses on ending rape culture, among other issues — went up Tuesday at 5 p.m. and was growing in signatures by the minute.

It's not the first time people have called for Wax's firing, though in the past, it has been the Penn Law community —  faculty, alumni, and students — who have organized around the issue. In March, the Black Law Students Association organized a campaign to get Wax fired after she spoke on Loury's show about black students' performance in her class. Penn Law responded by removing Wax from teaching mandatory first-year law courses.

Wax did not immediately respond to a request for comment but has said in the past that Penn Law is censoring "civil discourse" and consequently academic freedom. Penn Law did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Conservatives have taken up her cause: In April, Penn Law donor Paul S. Levy stepped down from two of his university board positions as a form of protest of what he called law school dean Ted Ruger's "unacceptable" treatment of Wax. That same month, the National Association of Scholars gave Wax an award for "her continued academic courage in the face of threats to her livelihood and attacks on her integrity."

Earlier this year, after Wax said that she didn't think she'd ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class at the university, Penn Law alumna Ayana Lewis said in an interview that no student "should have to be forced to sit and learn from someone who has devalued, disrespected, and lied about them."

When it comes to matters of sexual assault, the question of how a law professor should communicate with her students has weighed heavy on the mind of Anne Coughlin, a law professor at the University of Virginia.

Coughlin, who teaches the law of rape and sexual assault, says that many students on campus have found the hearings to be painful and traumatic. Some are survivors of sexual assault. At the same time, some male students have concerns about being falsely accused of sexual assault. It's important, Coughlin says, not to trivialize anyone's experience and to approach these issues with respect, regardless of her views on the issue.

But what's most important to her — what she feels is a professional obligation to her students — is to model a different approach to sexual-assault allegations, one that prioritizes respect and careful investigation and does not trivialize a woman's trauma, as she said it seems Wax did in her interview.

"As law professors, we should be committed to a world where women are able to come forward without feeling humiliated," she said, "without feeling like they're the ones who are being put on trial."

Brian Leiter, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has previously blogged about Wax, said it wasn't a professor's responsibility to make sure students are comfortable.

"The 'comfort feelings' of students are irrelevant: There would be no academic freedom if they counted!"

Though he described her views as "typically foolish," he wrote in an email that "it is not a firing offense at any university committed to the principles of academic freedom."

"She is free to speak out about a matter of clear public interest, and to hold a view most people reject," he said. "A professor's duties to her students are to responsibly and effectively teach the material of her discipline, to treat the students with professionalism and respect, and to grade fairly based on student mastery of the material."