By: Yair Sturm  | 

Cardozo Groups Honor Clinton; Student Presentation Provokes Protest, Poor Publicity (Vol. 66, Issue 9)

A man recently barred from practicing law would hardly seem the ideal candidate to receive tribute from a law school. Nevertheless, On March 19th, Bit Clinton accepted an International Advocate of Peace Award from two student groups at Cardozo Law School for his efforts to promote international diplomacy. At an event closed to the media, 350 students cheered Clinton as he graciously accepted his award, while a handful of protestors marched outside the building. The ceremony itself went smoothly, but it also provoked some backlash within the student community and the national press. 

Two student groups, Cardozo Online Journal of Conflict Resolution (COJCR), and the International Law Students Association, created the Peace Award last year when they honored America’s Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke. Introducing this year’s honoree, president of the International Law Students Association Melissa Stewart explained that the award was given to “acknowledge [Clinton's] tireless and passionate efforts in advocating peace and democracy from Korea to Kosovo, from Ireland to the Middle East.”

Protestors argued that Bill Clinton's checkered moral and legal history do not befit a Cardozo honoree. Scandal tarnished his presidency from the outset, as at the end of last year, Clinton admitted to lying before a grand jury and only narrowly avoided prosecution for perjury. More recently, he stirred up controversy with a presidential pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose wife made heavy contributions to his party and presidential library. Many asserted that Clinton should not be praised as any sort of role model, and certainly not at a law school eeking to instill ethics and integrity in its students.

The award’s presenters counter that they honored Clinton for his advocacy of peace and not of law. Describing her motivation for creating the award, the editor of the COJCR, Peggy Sweeney, explained, “We wanted to make sure it was understood that this award was going to be meant for people who worked towards peace of any nature. We kept coming back to the word ‘advocate’”  Clinton agreed to accept the award while he was still in office, and the ceremony has been postponed since October, before the Rich pardon episode.

Some demonstrators denounced Clinton for his role in the Mideast peace process, charging that he pressured Barak into a dangerous agreement in hope of inflating his own reputation. They pointed out that his efforts have not led to any real peace in Israel and may even be responsible for the escalating violence. Penny Sweeney defended the group's choice, noting that organizers “intentionally called it the Advocate of Peace Award so [they] could honor peace efforts, even ones that have not yet succeeded, since peace often take many years to fully develop.”

The New York Post, Daily News and Associated Press all reported the event, provoking a number of angry responses. Echoing the negative tone of articles and editorials, readers complained that the award was not in the ethical spirit of a law school. Some expressed dismay that the country’s future lawyers chose to show such respect for a man who himself was barred from practicing law. Earle I. Mack, the Chairman of the Board of Cardozo, wrote a response to The Post, clarifying the fact that the faculty and administration had nothing to do with the award, while also defending the students’ right to honor whomever they choose. 

The groups that presented the award represent about 100 of 950 students at the law school — a significant percentage, but far from a majority. Peter L. Ferrara, Yeshiva’s Director of Public Relations, said he received, on average, an equal amount of positive and negative feedback about the award. He pointed out that “whether or not one agrees with the honoree, you have to give the students a great deal of credit for being able to make the approach, secure Clinton’s appearance and produce the result — with the support of many individuals and departments — of an impressive event.”