Twitter was awash with law professors proffering legal opinions a year ago when activists sued President Donald Trump for alleged violations of the emoluments clause.
Not all those weighing in were constitutional law experts with a firm grasp on the somewhat obscure statute barring officials in the federal government from receiving gifts from foreign governments, however.
That’s a problem, according to Carissa Byrne Hessick, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law and author of a new essay urging her colleagues to exercise caution on Twitter in order to protect their professional reputations and preserve the standing of the legal academy.
With more law professors using Twitter to weigh in on the issues of the day—and sometimes veering into the platform’s culture of snark and incivility—it’s time for law professors to have a conversation about how best to use the medium, Hessick argues in her draft article, “Towards a Series of Academic Norms for #LawProf Twitter,” which will appear in an upcoming edition of the Marquette Law Review….
The current Twitter debate echoes the discussion law professors had 15 years ago about the value of blogging, said Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law who has nearly 30,000 followers.
“It seems to me to be a perennial question as to whether law professors, as law professors, should be using new media to communicate to new sets of people,” he said. “It’s not quite a new debate, its just shifted from one platform to another.”
In fact, more than half of the traffic to Hasen’s Election Law Blog comes from Twitter, he said.
According to Hasen, Twitter is an effective tool to reach a broad audience and can lead to unexpected exchanges. Just last month he and talk show host Montel Williams traded tweets regarding Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s handling of the state’s recent senate election. Williams qualified a tweet supportive of Merrill based on facts provided by Hasen. “It’s not like I could otherwise get to Montel Williams,” Hasen said of Twitter’s ability bring users together.
In October, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan outed herself as a Twitter user to Hasen after he live-tweeted a talk she gave at Chicago-Kent College of Law. When Hasen introduced himself to the Justice later that day, she asked if he had been the one tweeting her talk.
“It was pretty obvious that not only is Justice Kagan lurking on Twitter, but she was interested enough that she was checking it between the reception and the next event,” Hasen said.
And no, Kagan does not have an account under her real name. Her twitter handle is a source of speculation among the lawyers who call themselves #AppellateTwitter.
For all Twitter’s benefits, Hasen said it can be difficult to discern when fellow law professors are giving their political opinions on Twitter and when they are offering up legal ones, particularly during the polarizing Trump presidency. Law professors shouldn’t be precluded from sharing their political views on Twitter, he said, but they should make clear that they aren’t offering a legal opinion when they do.