Cary Nelson

GWU Law Firm delivers what it was paid for

On March 27, 2023, the president of George Washington University issued a ten bullet point summary of a report received from a corporate law firm that GWU had hired to review the case of Lara Sheehi and a complaint filed by the NGO StandWithUs regarding both her actions and GWU’s inadequate response. The complaint, filed with the Civil Rights Office of the US Department of Education, is still pending. GWU hired the law firm to provide cover for its own inadequate investigation. The DOE requires that institutions have established procedures for investigating student complaints. The law firm, so GWU apparently hoped, could provide retroactive cover for the university and its failure to conduct an impartial investigation.

The law firm at issue is Crowell & Moring, a large international law firm, headquartered in Washington, DC, with offices in the United States, Europe, MENA, and Asia. They employ about 600 lawyers and represent clients across a number of industries, including the defense, aerospace, healthcare, and IT industries. It will clarify matters if we quote the firm’s own definition of its mission, reproduced from its website: “When the inevitable disputes arise over products, environmental contamination, or premises liability, we combine product and industry experience with aggressive and creative legal strategy. We help clients quickly and efficiently resolve regulatory actions, as well as single plaintiff litigations, class actions, mass actions, and multidistrict litigation.”

 Examples of Crowell & Moring’s descriptions of its legal work include:

  • Lead counsel for a pharmaceutical company in multi-jurisdictional litigation involving allegedly tainted pharmaceutical. We favorably resolved part of the litigation while we are aggressively litigating the remainder to meet client objectives.
  • Serve as national coordinating counsel for a chemical manufacturer and a telecommunications company in asbestos litigation.
  • Creatively litigating our clients’ most important projects and interests in the federal and state courts, whether by defending key regulatory permits or approvals from attacks under the environmental statutes, affirmatively seeking to clear the path for the next phase of an important project through preemption litigation, or pursuit/defense of remediation cost recovery and contribution actions, particularly those involving high exposure, complex megasites or remedies, or federal government liability.
  • We also counsel several leading universities, helping to assess and resolve complex employment issues that arise in the higher-education setting.

The Crowell & Moring attorneys who worked for GWU are Laurel Pyke Malson and Sadina Montani, who are experienced in representing universities and other businesses against discrimination complaints. Malson reports that her case work has included “Title IX litigation defending universities against claims brought by both complainants and respondents.” Montani’s biography notes that she “represents employers in state and federal courts and before various administrative agencies, defending claims of race, sex, disability, and age discrimination.” Given their history, would anyone seeking an objective “independent investigation” have enlisted their services? Of course the summary does not supply this background, since it would hardly have reinforced its credibility. One might also wonder how comfortable Zionist students would have felt admitting their feelings to GWU’s legal advocates? After all, the trial of several Zionist heretics was already under way. The university’s shameless willingness to use partisan advocates to question students is inexcusable. The university could easily have arranged for a genuinely fair and independent review. It evidently decided not to do so because that would not have produced the results it wanted.

Crowell & Moring overall works to defend and advance the corporate and institutional interests of its clients. That is to be expected in the US’s advocacy system. I would have no problem with the university hiring Crowell & Moring to represent it in court or to negotiate with a government agency, DOE included. But I condemn the decision to use Crowell to conduct a sham investigation. Corporations do that often enough, and one realizes “investigation” in such cases should be in quotes. But I am naïve enough to expect a university to devote itself to the search for the truth. GWU’s betrayal of that principle helps explain why this analysis will offer a very harsh judgment about its conduct in this affair.

As the summary of its brief on the Lara Sheehi case demonstrates, Crowell & Moring was in no regard a disinterested or neutral adjudicator of Sheehi and the students’ contesting claims. The university had already dismissed the students’ accusations and endorsed Sheehi’s accusations against her students. It was thus clear what GWU would want from an advocate even before Crowell was hired. Describing the results as an “investigative report” is completely misleading. Crowell was the university’s defense attorney. What follows is based on GWU’s own summary of the law firm’s report. The university refuses to release the report itself, though public pressure may compel them to do so. Presumably, anyone who was promised anonymity already had their name redacted in the full report. If not, that would easily be done before release.

Under the circumstances, we cannot know whether the summary issued by GWU’s president reproduces the exact language from the report or perhaps mixes Cowell & Moring prose with language from the president’s staff. The summary may involve different emphases and conclusions. We just do not know. That is unfortunate, but the document released embodies at least three layers of representation and interpretation—the faculty, students and staff at GWU; Crowell & Moring’s attorneys; and the GWU administration. It is difficult to know whether or where to place our trust.

The ten bullet points include some genuine absurdities. Thus, bullet point eight uselessly insists that “no student-interviewees recalled Dr. Sheehi denying that antisemitism exists.” Of course no one to my knowledge ever has or would make such a foolish statement. The disputes are over what counts as antisemitic. And the report is correct that Sheehi has “denounced antisemitism as a real and present danger.” Indeed, she deplores Nazism and other movements on the far right. But she does not recognize her own antisemitic statements or those of her radical left allies for what they are. Although the report doesn’t mention this, Sheehi frequently tells us she has friends among “good Jews,” namely those hostile to the existence of a Jewish state. The statement in the report is pretty much on the order of “Dr. Sheehi never claimed that the earth is really flat.” Was Crowell and Moring actually ignorant enough to ask students whether Sheehi claimed antisemitism doesn’t exist? Does the GWU president actually believe this “evidence” strengthens his case?

Nearly as absurd, at least for an administrator who should have minimal competence in the use of social media, is bullet number nine’s misleading confusion about the difference between the meaning of “personal” versus “private” in the context of Twitter’s practices. The account that Sheehi established in 2010 was personal; it was her own account, just like those of millions of other Twitter users. But its messages were decidedly not “private,” contrary to what GWU tries to claim. In other words, by the end, Sheehi’s personal tweets were automatically distributed to her several thousand “followers.” Moreover, every time she responded to a tweet by another user her response went to everyone else in the chain. When she simply forwarded someone else’s tweet, without comment, her hashtag would have been there to see. And of course her followers were free to forward her tweets as they chose. How many of Sheehi’s hateful tweets were also picked up and distributed by Twitter’s algorithm? Whether innocent or willful, confusion about the nature of Twitter has led some of her allies to claim it is a violation of her privacy to quote tweets distributed to thousands of people. Again, that is patently absurd.

In January 2023, Sheehi toggled her Twitter account to “private.” The last of her 9,776 tweets I have in a file is from January 8. She apparently closed her account completely when StandWithUs filed its complaint on January 11th. The account was private for less than one week. For twelve years, Sheehi had a personal account, not a private one. Did neither Crowell and Morning nor the GWU administration know the difference? Or did both think it would help their case to confuse matters? The summary report concludes that these “private tweets . . . were made in a private Twitter account that was only briefly visible to the public.” This statement is far more than misleading. I believe it is a bald lie, one advanced both by a major law firm and a research university administration. If GWU president Mark S. Wrighton was not already committed to leaving in June 2023, he should have been pressed to resign.

Behaving a bit like Puritan Media Review Services, the summary “strongly denounces the use of profane language directed at any group of people” as its response to many thousands of instances of profanity packed into over a thousand of Sheehi’s tweets. That is all it will concede regarding the many years of Sheehi railing against Israelis and the Jewish state, along with “the university understands how these tweets, viewed at face value, are offensive and hurtful to some.” Indeed. You might say so. A decade worth of hate speech from a faulty member who teaches Jewish students and Israelis. The most the GWU administration will do is to adopt the role of a weary parent remarking “Watch your language” to a poorly behaved child.

From there, we encounter what I find to be more willful distortions. Bullet four comments on a guest lecture by anti-Zionist Israeli Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian. The core of her lecture included the claim that Israel’s humanitarian efforts throughout the world are not based on actual humanitarian impulses but are rather a crass effort to deflect attention from the county’s military actions and human rights violations. Jewish students were offended. So am I. The summary says “While the SWU letter to OCR alleges that the speaker’s comments were antisemitic, the review found that the allegations in the complaint about the lecture are largely inconsistent with the recording of the event or significantly decontextualized.” So Crowell and Moring’s nonexistent internationally renowned authorities on antisemitism have decided that Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s patently offensive argument is not antisemitic. Perhaps it merely reflects on millions of Israel Jews who only happen to be Jewish. The Israeli doctors and nurses who help people in need worldwide possess no admirable impulses. If they did possess more virtuous motives, those have been suborned by the demonic Israeli political machine.

That several Jewish students, including the one Israeli, found this argument and Sheehi’s endorsement of it offensive is hardly surprising. Alone among the nations, Israel’s international humanitarian work is found to be a cynical deception. We must not admire those who participate in this fraud. We should see them for what they are, people who use the suffering of others for political gain, people who have joined an international conspiracy organized by Israeli Jews. If you take pride in their work, something is very wrong with you.

Since it is unlikely there are established antisemitism authorities in the GWU president’s office, one may ask which scholars were consulted before his office agreed with Crowell & Moring’s “findings.” The cynical use of that term is consistent with the report’s basic aim of deceiving its audience. Indeed, to lend the text an air of objective fact, it is given the title “Summary of Findings of independent Investigation by Crowell & Moring LLP.” Many no doubt found the report persuasive because it told them what they wanted to hear, what they already believed. Others may have been convinced by the summary report’s mask of objective reporting. Yet, we are all familiar with attorneys stepping forward to be spokespersons for their clients. Why have some nonetheless been taken in by a sham process? The report’s bias is apparent on a closer reading.

The third bullet point declares that “Crowell found no evidence substantiating the allegations of discriminatory and retaliatory conduct alleged in the complaint.” There is, however, no dispute about the key sequence of events at GWU. Based on events in class, the students filed a complaint with the university alleging antisemitic conduct on Sheehi’s part. Shortly thereafter, based on events in class, Sheehi filed a complaint alleging racism on the part of the same students. Are we actually to believe there was nothing retaliatory about that? Is that another “finding?” Apparently, Sheehi had only the purest of motives, to help the students purge themselves of pernicious racism and delusional ideas about antisemitism. It hurt her more than it hurt them, but, as she claims in her self-defense, she was honor bound to call out racism in potential therapists. Of course if the students did not confess their sins, they could not become therapists, but that is not punitive. It is a form of healing. The students would thank her in the end.

This bullet point doubles down on the forced process of remediation “intended to address a deficiency in a skill or subject matter area necessary for continued progress in the Program and, ultimately, licensure.” So the ultimate threat against the students is revived. And, just for good measure, the summary adds that this step was “necessary” and “was not a retaliatory measure for complaints of antisemitism in Dr. Sheehi’s Diversity Sequence.” The action against the students was placed on hold after the DOE received its complaint. But the Crowell report gives GWU justification to continue its antisemitic proceedings if it wishes. The students must each write a confession acknowledging their guilt and explaining how they can be restored to the university’s view of what constitutes a proper form of humanity. The report insists that “remediation is not disciplinary. Rather it is a supportive and collaborative process between students and faculty.” It is really God’s work; we just need the insight to see that. This virtual rack dispenses a form of grace. If that claim is not in fact disingenuous in this case, then it is self-deceived. The remediation process, to the contrary, is threatening and coercive. If the remediation process starts up again, the students should be assisted to take personal legal action against GWU. Their identities, professional reputations, and careers are on the line. And so are the fates of all future Jewish and non-Jewish Zionists in GWU’s program in professional psychology.

GWU’s administration has actually issued a warning to all current members of the GWU community: protest antisemitism at your peril. Antisemitism is no longer an appropriate basis of principled complaints. Indeed, it is no longer an arena for open debate. Antisemitism’s limits have been decided by administrative fiat. Step over the line, and you enter the punishment system. The punishments will be administered through spiritual torture, much in the style of religious trials for heresy. According to GWU’s system, elaborate confessions, along with conversion to a competing ethical system, are required of candidates for remediation. Antisemitism accusations are turned back on the complainants and used to interrogate their character. It is standard blame the victim strategy, exacerbated by Crowell’s and GWU’s complicity.

Because of its stark human cruelty, I find bullet point eight to be the most offensive one here. But its political basis is found distributed across several other sections. The key sections are bullet points four, five, six, and nine, which address accusations of antisemitism in the course, Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s lecture, and Sheehi’s tweets. At issue in both the guest lecture and Sheehi’s tweets is the standard articulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Definition of Antisemitism, which Sheehi opposes. The IHRA definition carefully states that criticism of Israeli government policies unlike those addressed to other nations may, after contextual analysis, be identified as antisemitic. Whether such Sheehi statements as these, all excerpted from tweets—”don’t tag me in fucking anti-Palestinian bullshitters, blaming Hamas for lack of negotiations. This is settler colonial apologetics. Fucking learn something, all of you. There are no more excuses for you settlers, all around, from Palestine, to Turtle Island” (5/10/2021, 8:11 AM), or “Israelis are so fucking racist” (12/10/2019, 1:31 PM) and “the psychotic processing of settlers and Zionists truly has no bounds” (12/ 4/ 2021, 8:53 PM)—qualify as antisemitic statements is at least a valid subject for debate. Setting aside the summary’s dismissive contention that the scores and scores of Sheehi’s anti-Zionist and antisemitic tweets, which were ongoing for a decade and persist through 2022, are “believed to be posted several years ago,” one is left with the far more troubling GWU president’s conclusion that the students “advocated for an expansive view of the definition of academic antisemitism, which, if accepted in the university environment, could infringe on free speech principles and academic freedom.”

What is that “expansive view?” The summary does not specify what is at stake. That is a deceptive strategy chosen to support the implication that this “expansive view” is patently objectionable, that it violates basic democratic principles. Perhaps we are to assume it would indecent to provide more detail, almost like quoting Sheehi’s obsessive profanity. The expansive definition is an undemocratic obscenity. The summary does not mention the IHRA definition, but that is clearly the “expansive” definition at issue. It would be perfectly fine to call the Definition controversial, but to issue a formal conclusion that it presents a danger to both academic freedom and free speech is a deplorable intervention from a university president. Nor should we accept Crowell & Moring as authorities on academic freedom or antisemitism. Both Crowell and GWU took on the role of telling Jews what antisemitism is and is not.

Most press coverage of the president’s summary has completely failed to subject it to any serious evaluation, opting instead for a misleading neutrality that gives the impression the report delivers a reasonable verdict of exoneration for both Sheehi herself and the university.

The new GWU president, Ellen Granberg, should be encouraged to distance herself from this unfortunate report after she arrives, first of all by cancelling the remedial program for the Jewish students who lodged complaints against Lara Sheehi. If it is allowed to stand, the report represents a precedent that endangers all Jewish students who embrace the state of Israel, despite its flaws. It places antisemitic faculty actions beyond criticism or sanction. And it claims for administrators unwarranted power to decide ethical and political matters for the communities over which they preside.

Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has published widely about both academic freedom and antisemitism. His detailed analysis of Lara Sheehi’s publications and social media posts is available online at the refereed journal Fathom:

About the Author
Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the coeditor of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, published this January. He spent a month in Israel from December to January, lecturing at Israeli universities and elsewhere, with the support of Jewish organizations in the US.
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