Not long ago, I was asked to sign a petition, circulating among law professors, that condemns the recent pepper-spraying of protesters at the University of California-Davis. This invitation rekindled my interest in the origins of these petitions.
Law professors qua law professors have become engaged in topical public controversies since the early 1900s. Some law professors spoke out about the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, and many professors took well-publicized positions on Franklin Roosevelt’s court-packing plan. I am unfamiliar with any widely distributed petition as to either event, however. (Although the AALS did initiate, only to abandon, a poll of law faculties designed to gauge their support or opposition to FDR’s plan.)
The first petition I have found that specifically requested the support of American law faculties circulated almost exactly 73 years ago, in early December 1938. This petition was prepared and distributed by telegram shortly after the Kristallnacht pogroms, and read as follows:
Faculty of Law [Institution, Location]
The Faculty of Law of the University of Amsterdam invites you kindly to inform them by telegram before December ten whether your Faculty of Law would be willing to second the following resolution. The invitation being wired today to all Faculties of Law in the British Empire, United States of America, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland. The Faculties of Law of the Universities mentioned below noting with sorrow and dismay that in some countries innumerable people are being persecuted and tormented on account of their faith, race or political convictions and that particularly in the so called Concentration Camps innocent people are without legal procedure subjected to inhuman treatment considering that the basic principles of justice are thus insufferably violated voice their protest against this violation in view of their duty to uphold the principles of justice and the rights of man appeal to the conscience of mankind to support them in this protest and decide to publish this resolution and to communicate it to their respective governments.
The telegram, which on its face requested the support of each contacted institution (as opposed to the endorsement of individual professors) met with a range of responses. Some American law faculties (including those at Yale, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Colorado) signed on to the petition. At Harvard, it was agreed that individual professors could endorse the petition, if they so chose, but that no such backing would come from the general faculty, speaking as a whole and for the institution generally.
Today, it’s assumed that individual professors, as opposed to the institutions where they work, represent the proper signatories of a petition such at the one circulated by the University of Amsterdam law faculty. Were assumptions different, one presumes that there would be a lot fewer petitions in circulation. Plus faculty meetings would become much longer.