Was NYU Law Student Ryna Workman Canceled?

As president of the Student Bar Association at NYU law school, Ryna Workman* has her say.

This was not the position of NYU Law School, according to its dean. This was not a position agreed upon or approved by the SBA. This was the personal position of Ryna Workman, put forth as the position of the SBA. Before the day was out, the offer of employment as an associate by Winston & Strawn was rescinded.

Today, Winston & Strawn learned that a former summer associate published certain inflammatory comments regarding Hamas’ recent terrorist attack on Israel and distributed it to the NYU Student Bar Association. These comments profoundly conflict with Winston & Strawn’s values as a firm. Accordingly, the Firm has rescinded the law student’s offer of employment.

As communicated yesterday to all Winston personnel, we remain outraged and deeply saddened by the violent attack on Israel over the weekend. Our hearts go out to our Jewish colleagues, their families, and all those affected.

Winston stands in solidarity with Israel’s right to exist in peace and condemns Hamas and the violence and destruction it has ignited in the strongest terms possible. We look forward to continuing to work together to eradicate anti-Semitism in all forms and to the day when hatred, bigotry, and violence against all people have been eliminated. Our strength lies in our unity, empathy, and shared humanity.

On twitter, Orin Kerr asked whether this was the right response or cancel culture. There was significant backlash within the legal community, including an online petition demanding that the offer of employment be rescinded. But in the larger scheme of mobs, this neither caught a great deal of attention nor stood out given that many other law schools, including Harvard and Yale, and law student groups were similarly supportive of rape, murder and beheading.

As argued before, there needs to be a definitional line between normal criticism, or as the kids prefer to call it, “consequences,” and cancel culture. I’ve attempted to draw the line at secondary boycotts, where people not only criticize and condemn ideas they find repugnant, but then push a third part, here the future employer Winston & Strawn, to take punitive action against the individual who expressed the reprehensible words. In other words, you can condemn Workman for what she wrote and/or that she presented it in her position as Student Bar Association president rather than as her personal view alone without demanding that her job offer from Winston & Strawn be rescinded.

But was it cancel culture? David Lat, who has his pulse on big law, offered his breakdown.

As a strong defender of free speech, I recognize Workman’s right to voice their opinion, even if some or even many of us find it abhorrent.
At the same time, a private, reputation-conscious employer like Winston is not required to ignore Workman’s comments, especially given how much negative publicity they generated for the firm.
One reader suggested to me that Winston could have justified the offer rescission by citing incredibly poor judgment or a total lack of self-awareness, as opposed to inconsistency with “firm values.” In the words of this reader—who, to be clear, also views Workman’s comments as reprehensible—“Now Winston will face pressure to summarily defenestrate the next person discovered to have taken the inconvenient side of some inflammatory issue.” [UPDATE (3 p.m.): As noted by several commenters, a significant part of the poor judgment is using the SBA newsletter to disseminate personal views, without consulting or even notifying other SBA members.]
The three-paragraph Winston email reprinted above could have been replaced by a single paragraph: “Today, Winston & Strawn learned that a former summer associate published certain inflammatory comments regarding Hamas’ recent terrorist attack on Israel and distributed them to the NYU Student Bar Association. These comments reflect extremely poor professional judgment. Accordingly, the Firm has rescinded the law student’s offer of employment.”
This entire episode highlights the difficulties that leaders and institutions create for themselves when they take positions on every issue in the news, from the monumental to the mundane. See also Dean Gillian Lester of Columbia Law School, who issued a stronger criticism of Hamas yesterday after getting flak for her original missive.

On the one hand, W&S issued its statement and rescinded its offer of employment on the same day that Workman’s “message” was issued. It neither reversed itself nor waited to see whether the public backlash would have traction. That would suggest that this was the firm’s reaction to Workman, and not to the “mob” demanding they reverse their hiring offer.

On the other hand, as David notes, the firm is “reputation conscious,” and by the time it issued its statement and acted, the news had already spread fairly widely within the online legal community and was met with near-universal condemnation, at least from serious people.

As a rule, there is free speech does not mean freedom from consequences.  But when the reaction isn’t to your speech, but rather to the public reaction to your speech, it’s cancel culture and third parties should be strong and bold enough to refuse to let the mob dictate their actions. It’s also possible, of course, that a reaction can have attributes of both, where third party condemnation aligns with the first party’s reaction, such that they are all in agreement that the speech was repugnant and unacceptable, and the first party independently wants nothing to do with the speaker.

Which is it with Ryna Workman and Winston & Strawn? Circumstances here make it hard to reach a clear conclusion, but it would seem most likely that the decision to rescind the offer of employment belonged to the firm, and was validated by public reaction. It’s almost impossible to conceive of any law firm having an associate on staff who has so vehemently expressed a position that co-workers, superiors and clients would find so abhorrent and disgusting that they would refuse to work with her.

What may play among her friends at NYU was not going to be acceptable to lawyers and clients who didn’t share her blaming Hamas’ rape, murder and beheadings on Israel. And when it comes to rape, murder and beheadings, it’s a line that no decent person would cross.

*I’m informed that Workman identifies as non-binary, uses the salutation “Mx.” and the pronouns they/them. I will not.

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