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Robin Steinberg, a New York public defender who was initially disinvited in February as an honoree of a separate Law School event, addressed her connection to a controversial online video that some say endorsed killing white police officers in retribution for police violence against black men at a Harvard Law School lecture Friday.
Delivering the Law School Criminal Justice Institute’s inaugural “Trailblazer Lecture” in Wasserstein Hall Friday, Steinberg described her experience during the public scrutiny over the video. According to a New York City investigation, Steinberg did not check the content of the video before allowing two of her employees to appear in it. Consequently, she was suspended from her role as executive director of Bronx Defenders, a low-income legal representation group contracted by New York City, for 60 days.
Initially listed as an honoree as part of the International Women’s Day photo exhibit at the Law School, Steinberg’s invitation was rescinded on account of the investigation, according to a joint press release from the Women’s Law Association and the Law and International Development Society, the organizations that organized the exhibit.
While Steinberg said during the lecture Friday that the video at the heart of the controversy was largely misconstrued and its message distorted, she said that if her organization had been given the proper chance, it would have attempted to edit the video.
“Precisely because its message is so vulnerable to misinterpretation, we would have insisted on editing out those portions of the video that threatened even imagined violence against the police,” she said. “Not because they are not legitimate avenues of expression, but because we would have known that those images would offend and tragically distract from the real issue: that of our clients’ experiences that we were trying to shine a light on.”
Steinberg said that her experience with the investigation has given her insight into her work.
“It has only been in the terrifying and wild country of being a target myself that I have understood the depths of client need,” she said. “The paralyzing stress of daily fear and the abject loneliness that comes from being unheard and intentionally misunderstood by those with power above you too interested in using it. It is from this outcast state, my outcast state, that I fully intend to blaze a trail forward.”
The decision to revoke Steinberg’s honor prompted outcry from some in the Law School community, and Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., who directs the Criminal Justice Institute, said it was “a very unfortunate episode that occurred [there].”
“I certainly made it my business to ensure that her voice would be heard here at the Harvard Law School,” Sullivan said.
Steinberg said that she was thankful for the support the members of the Law School community expressed—there were a number of petitions and an op-ed in The Crimson— for her throughout the controversy.
—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @aduehren.
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