A Law School Challenged

Legal education goes on–seven blocks from Ground Zero. Here’s one professor’s story. Professor Sadiq Reza was one of the dust-covered refugees on September 11.
BY MARCI ALBOHER, L Magazine, January 2002

New York Law School, which sits seven blocks from the rubble that was once the World Trade Center, will never be the same. Because of its location, everyone in the law school community has a story to tell about where they were on September 11.

Having watched the towers come down from his Battery Park City apartment, he escaped lower Manhattan, but never made it to school that day. And once he left his apartment, it would be nearly two months before he could move back home. As he tried to put his personal life back together, his professional life took on an increasing importance in a changed world.

Until that day, Professor Reza had dedicated his career to two areas: criminal law and procedure, and Middle Eastern and Islamic studies. “In one day,” he says, “all the issues I was prepared to look into over the course of my career were suddenly yanked to the forefront.”

With little time to prepare, he was called upon to educate the law school community on matters ranging from an analysis of the terrorist attacks under Islamic law to how the month of Ramadan relates to the study and practice of law.

The law school closed completely for two weeks; with no power, telephone service, running water, or train service, downtown had become uninhabitable and inaccessible. The day before the school reopened, the faculty held a teach-in for the law school community to share thoughts and feelings about what had happened. Professor Reza shed his professorial role that day. “I was having great difficulty being logical, analytical, and cerebral as lawyers, law professors, and law students are expected to be. I was consumed with the human dimension.”

As he got back to work, Reza learned that teaching criminal law presented new challenges. “It is harder to teach and also feel grounded in the material since it is changing dramatically as we speak,” says Reza.

“The daily work of keeping up is also tremendously different,” says Reza. He often learns many of the developments in law enforcement the way the public does: by reading The New York Times and reports from other media outlets. He also makes sure to go to the original source materials and stays in close contact with advocacy organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations and the ACLU. “But the students shouldn’t feel the weight of that burden. My job is to distill the present agitation into meaningful concepts and policy discussion so that the students both learn from the subject matter and are provoked by it.”

The war and its implications for criminal law and procedure spill over into Reza’s classes on a regular basis. Recently, Reza allowed a class period to take a detour from the syllabus to discuss the news of the day: Attorney General Ashcroft’s release of certain information on the number of people detained and some of the bases for their detention. He had planned to talk about the Fifth Amendment right against compulsory self-incrimination, but he says he can’t imagine teaching in a way that did not allow for such spontaneous discussions. “The students are showing a huge need to work these issues out,” he explains, “especially given the way our school was so profoundly and uniquely affected.” Even with some parts of the syllabus rushed, he has made sure to cover the entire course, since he feels it is important for students to have an understanding of the basic doctrinal concepts.

Reza, who is an American-born Muslim of Indian heritage, now has a greater appreciation of what it might be like to be an immigrant from one of the countries whose citizens are being singled out. With all the talk about racial profiling, he jokingly says, “If the FBI or Justice Department continues to seek lists of Muslim or Middle Eastern people at schools or universities, I would certainly be on the list.” But he is not worried for himself. “There have been a few strange looks on the street,” he says, “but I’m not quick to attribute motives to those kind of fleeting encounters. The people I worry about are the students, cab drivers, bodega owners, and others who are vulnerable.”

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