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San Diego law professor under investigation over Chinese reference in coronavirus blog post

The Warren Hall School of Law at University of San Diego
The Warren Hall School of Law at University of San Diego.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A law professor at the University of San Diego is under investigation after students complained about an offensive phrase he used in a blog post about China and the coronavirus.

The post was written by Thomas Smith, a professor at USD Law School since 1992, as part of his blog called “The Right Coast,” in which he typically offers personal commentary on news items.

The March 10 entry centers on a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that questions China’s cooperation in the World Health Organization’s investigation into claims that the coronavirus escaped from a virology lab. The claim has thus far been unsubstantiated.

“If you believe that the coronavirus did not escape from the lab in Wuhan, you have to at least consider that you are an idiot who is swallowing whole a lot of Chinese **** swaddle,” Smith wrote.

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A student brought the post to the attention of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Assn. at USD, and the group filed a formal complaint with the help of the Student Bar Assn. The groups met with school officials Thursday.

“In law school we come here to be taught to be wordsmiths and to make educated arguments,” said Ashley Thompson, a second-year law student and board member of the student association. “He did the opposite. He stooped to use dangerous rhetoric. That is part of reason this so disturbing and hurtful.”

On Wednesday, the USD School of Law dean sent a letter to students calling the language offensive and noting the increase in hate crimes and racist commentary against the Asian and Pacific Islander community relating to the coronavirus and its origins.

“While the blog is not hosted by the University of San Diego, these forms of bias, wherever they occur, have an adverse impact on our community,” wrote Robert Schapiro, who took over as dean in January. “It is especially concerning when the disparaging language comes from a member of our community.”

A USD spokesperson said the conduct of the professor — who wasn’t named in the letter — would be reviewed to determine if university or law school policies were violated.

“A core value of the University of San Diego School of Law is that all members of the community must be treated with dignity and respect,” the spokesperson said. “University policies specifically prohibit harassment, including the use of epithets, derogatory comments, or slurs based on race or national origin, among other categories.”

Some time after the original blog post went up, an update was added to Smith’s commentary: “It appears that some people are interpreting my reference to ‘Chinese **** swaddle,’ as a reference to an ethnic group. That is a misinterpretation. To be clear, I was referring to the Chinese government.”

Smith did not respond to a request for comment in emails sent to him and his assistant Friday.

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For Benjamin Cope, a first-year law student representative of the Asian and Pacific Islander student association, the impact of the words outweighs the intent.

“Maybe it wasn’t his intent, but he chose very, very specific, unique, colorful language,” Cope said. “I know everyone will have their opinion, but as someone who will and has been affected by people’s words like this, I feel comfortable saying it was racist, it was offensive.”

The student groups are asking for Smith to be terminated, or that he issue a formal apology and that students be allowed to opt out of his courses. Other requests include the university hire more diverse faculty. The students also wrote an open letter to Smith asking for an apology.

Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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