A Christmas Tree of Campaigns at IU

, Sean Grindlay, Leave a comment

Taking a questionable legal approach to federal election regulations, Florence Wagman Roisman, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Law in Indianapolis, was reported to have used university resources to spam law students and faculty with a message opposing the confirmation of Judge Charles Pickering. Her use of campus e-mail to lobby against President Bush’s nominee to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals two years ago appeared to be in violation of federal election law, not to mention university policy.

Rather than being disciplined, however, Roisman has in fact been promoted since Campus Report first covered the incident. The month following the story, Roisman was one of four faculty members to receive the Trustees’ Teaching Award for 2002, and in March of 2003, she was named Michael D. McCormick Professor of Law.

Roisman’s original message included contact information for members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a condemnation of Pickering’s record by the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT), a group founded in 1972 to “champion liberal causes.” The message encouraged students to “exercise your right to be heard!”

The dean of the law school at that time, Norman Lefstein, said that he would review the incident to determine whether Roisman’s behavior had violated the law or university policy. The law school recently declined to tell Campus Report what ultimately became of the investigation, saying only that Lefstein “spoke with Professor Roisman regarding the appropriate use of the e-mail system.” Lefstein did not return calls seeking comment.

As it happens, Roisman is not the only one to have received a promotion. This January, despite Roisman’s and SALT’s efforts, President Bush appointed Pickering to the Fifth Circuit during a Senate recess, bypassing a filibuster of the nominee by Democratic senators.

Roisman, meanwhile, generated controversy again at IU when she complained about a 12-foot Christmas tree that had been put on display in the law school’s atrium last November. Although the artificial tree was decked with globe-like ornaments and folded world maps rather than religious decorations, Roisman considered it “exclusionary.”

“The tree is placed there to celebrate a Christian holiday—it is not put there in the middle of summer,” said Roisman, who is Jewish. “To honor one religion and not honor others is exclusionary. This is unacceptable at a place that presents itself as inclusive of all people.”

Dean of Students Tony Tarr agreed with Roisman. On December 4 the school removed the tree and replaced it with two smaller trees accompanied by a poinsetta-filled sleigh.

“That was a denominational tree,” Tarr explained. “It is now a normal Indiana scene.”

Some of Roisman’s colleagues praised the dean’s decision to remove the tree.

“Dean Tarr acted thoughtfully,” said Law Professor Jennifer Drobac. “Because ours is a state school and, to a great degree, a majoritarian society, Dean Tarr quietly replaced the Christmas tree rather than further discomfort those non-Christians who felt excluded. Under Supreme Court precedent, the tree could remain, but we are a moral community as well as a legal one, an inclusive society. Dean Tarr gave life to the concept of equal protection, as well as to the First Amendment. I agree with the prophet who said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ I hope we can now rejoice in our peace and new understanding.”

Roisman, however, was still not satisfied. She said that the new display also represented the Christmas holiday and asked that it too be removed from the law school. But this time the dean did not accede to her request; the two smaller trees and the sleigh remained in the atrium until January.

Most students at the law school wondered what all the fuss was about, according to the Indianapolis Star, which covered the story.

“This is [political correctness] gone crazy. It’s beyond ridiculous,” commented student Matt Nicholson.

Himka Shergill, a student who was raised in India, saw nothing offensive about the tree. “I am not a Christian, but I like to hear Christmas songs, and my schools all had trees when I was a kid,” she said. “The students want the tree here. It is exam time, and it helps us relax.”

An editorial in the Indiana Daily Student, the university’s student newspaper, gave a sarcastic response to the law school’s explanation that the new display was “a neutral winter scene” inclusive of all students.

“While it may be in the school’s best interest to portray, albeit idealistically, the Indiana woodlands during winter, we can do nothing but think of the countless other ecosystems that are being ignored and treated with disrespect,” the editors wrote.

“Those from out of the state, you may as well enjoy your holiday in the annals of the law library, because it seems that the school has no interest in your seasonal experience if you hail from desert climates, tropical forests, the wind-blown tundra or the marshy swamps of the southeast,” the editorial continued. “So much for diversity. So much for inclusion.”

Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of Campus Report Online.