Thursday, August 25, 2005

I thought ignorance of the law was no defense

Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles finds herself in the middle of controversy, which appears to be her usual state of affairs. I don't know enough about most of the allegations, past and present, to offer any worthwile observations. I do know, though, that one of her supporters, Bill English, in an op-ed piece defending her in today's Star Tribune, advanced one of the most preposterous arguments I've seen in quite some time:

"We believe Peebles is innocent and should be allowed to do that work. However, if any infractions were made, they were minor and outside of her frame of reference as to what is illegal."

Ignore the awkward phrasing ("infractions were made"?). Ignore the idea that the infractions were minor - although we don't have the facts, allegations of academic fraud in work performed to obtain her superintendent's license, and using staff paid for by a cash-strapped public school district to perform her private work, are not minor. But just what in the world does it mean to say that these things were "outside of her frame of reference as to what is illegal"? That unless she specifically meant to violate the law, or ethical standards that we can reasonably expect of school district administrators, it doesn't matter? And do we all get a "frame of reference" as to what is legal? I don't even know what that means. Call me old-fashioned, but I always viewed the standards for determining what was legal as THE LAW, i.e., a set of rules. And while these rules can be ambiguous or open to interpretation, to say we all get our own frame of reference is sheer madness.

I don't know how all this will play out. I do know, though, that Bill English has made the type of argument that, in the words of one of my law professors, is so stupid that it will force people to resolve all subsequent doubts against you.

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