WESTVILLE – As one of America's most prolific attorneys, Alan Dershowitz is used to receiving flak for his unwavering stance on the sanctity of civil liberties for all, regardless of their beliefs.
Speaking in front of a capacity crowd at the Purdue University Northwest campus in Westville last month, the Brooklyn native and longtime Harvard Law School professor vividly recalled a conversation he once shared with one particularly harsh critic – his mother.
Early in his career, the Jewish attorney defended the free speech rights of a group of neo-Nazis when they wanted to march in a neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois. The move provoked the ire of his loved one, who could not understand his stance.
"'Whose side are you on, the Jews or the Nazis?'" Dershowitz recalled her asking him during a heated phone call.
"I said, 'Mom, I'm on the side of the First Amendment.'"
"'I'm your mother, don't talk to me like that,'" Dershowitz recalled her saying, which drew chuckles from the audience. "'You gotta pick a side!'"
As the self-described "civil libertarian" explained, however, sticking up for the free speech and due process rights of "terrible people" is the only way to prevent society from tumbling down the slippery slope of censorship.
"You have to be so concerned to make sure no one's rights are violated," he said. "If anyone's rights are violated, everyone's rights are potentially at risk."
The famed attorney, author and educator spoke on the importance of free speech in a highly divided country during his presentation, "Perspectives on Justice and Civil Liberties." More than 700 packed the Dworkin Center to hear Dershowitz, the latest speaker in PNW's 66th Sinai Forum series.
A graduate of Brooklyn College and Yale Law School, Dershowitz joined the Harvard Law School faculty at the age of 25 – the youngest in the Ivy League school's history. On top of his high-profile career as one of the nation's most recognized attorneys, Dershowitz has written more than 30 books, with his newest title, "Guilt by Accusation," set for release next month.
Throughout his 50-year teaching career at Harvard, the attorney attempted to instill in his students an appreciation for civil liberties and due process – values that today's "extraordinarily polarized world" now threaten, he said.
Though moderate politicians have historically led the country, more extreme ideologies – which show little deference to principles like free speech – increasingly appeal to modern Americans, Dershowitz said. This trend is especially prevalent on many college campuses, with students and professors alike calling for censorship of ideas that challenge the far-left politics that dominate such institutions, Dershowitz said.
He believes that the university is a place to have young adult's preconceived notions of the world and morality challenged, not reaffirmed. Despite his center-left leanings, Dershowitz kept his ideology out of his classroom curriculum, teaching students how, rather than what, to think, he said.
"If they were conservatives, I wanted them to be better conservatives, smarter conservatives," he said. "If they were liberals, I wanted them to be better liberals, smarter liberals. I would feel I failed in my task if I overtly converted somebody."
By contrast, many university instructors today see it as a responsibility to use their position of authority to propagandize their pupils toward their worldview, he said.
"How dare you, as a teacher, abuse that role and grade a student better if they agreed with your political views or refuse to grant a letter of recommendation if they disagreed with you?" he said.
Another threat to free speech is the politicization of the American Civil Liberties Union, which Dershowitz described as "dead in the water." Since President Donald Trump's election in 2016, the nonprofit organization has abandoned its mission to protect the individual liberties of citizens – even those who use offensive speech – in favor of agitating against the Republican leader.
Speaking of the president, Dershowitz reiterated his opposition to the Trump impeachment movement, which has gained traction in recent weeks due to the House's probe into his conduct with Ukraine.
The attorney – a Democrat who supported Trump's rival, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 election – has been critical of calls to remove the commander in chief for several years now.
Dershowitz argues that although Trump is guilty of many political sins, the Constitutional requirements for removing a sitting president are crystal clear – the leader must have committed "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."
So far, there is no evidence the president has committed such an offense, Dershowitz said.
He fears that if the Democrats can successfully weaponize impeachment against Trump, a Republican-led Congress will follow suit the next time one of their rivals occupies the Oval Office.
"The Democrats are hurting themselves and hurting the country when they try to impeach the president," he said.
His nuanced view on the topic, however, has placed him on the outs with many fellow Democrats, Dershowitz said. He claims his argument – laid out in his 2018 book, "The Case Against Impeaching Trump" – has even resulted in his banning from cable news giant CNN.
"As a liberal Democrat, I opposed the impeachment of a man I voted against – that was too much for CNN," he said.
Near the end of his remarks, Dershowitz addressed another controversy that has enveloped him over the past several months – accusations that he had sex with an underage girl provided to him by accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
Dershowitz vehemently denied sleeping with Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein's alleged victims who claims the lawyer was one of several wealthy men who sexually abused her as a teen. The attorney said there isn't even a "scintilla of evidence" he ever met his accuser, who he said has a long history of lying.
Despite his denial, Dershowitz said the allegations are now linked with other accusations of sexual abuse by high-profile individuals exposed in the #MeToo movement. Without ever facing a judge or jury, many treat Dershowitz as a guilty man, with some calling for the attorney never to appear on TV again, he said.
Dershowitz sees his case – which he will chronicle in his new book – as an example of a noble movement at-risk of going astray. Though he supports #MeToo, he fears what will happen if activists begin looking past the facts and throwing innocent people to wolves to advance the cause.
"I was in an argument with a lawyer the other day, who said, 'Look, the #MeToo movement is so important. Why are you trying to hurt it? Can't you just take one for the team?" Dershowitz recalled.
"I'm trying to help the movement. I'm trying to cleanse it of people who are trying to abuse the movement for their own profit."
The 66th Sinai Forum will continue on Sunday with a presentation by Captain "Sully" Sullenberger III, the pilot who successfully guided U.S. Airways Flight 1549 to an emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2009. Those interested in tickets or learning more about this year's lineup can call 855-608-4600 or visit pnw.edu/sinai-forum.