Throughout their publication histories, student-run newsletters The Pleader and HOOPS positioned themselves as politically motivated forces: they offered law students a platform that reversed traditional hierarchies of power in the law school, allowing students to respond to the daily function of the school and offer criticism about authority figures whose decisions affected them. In their editorials, the staff writers took an active role in amplifying controversial statements or actions from the administration, boldly sharing their own critiques and soliciting student responses to these issues, too.
Many of these writers focused on news specific to the law school, like statements from the dean, but others responded to contentious events that affected the Northwestern community on a whole. In an April 1978 issue of The Pleader, the editors addressed Northwestern’s decision to grant an honorary degree to Israel’s Prime Minister. In response to this event, the editors printed several letters from law students criticizing this decision and released a poll inviting students to submit their opinion on the honorary degree conferral. Printing the results of the poll in the next issue, the editors of The Pleader demonstrated a desire to affect institutional change democratically by collecting and disseminating student response.
The Letters to the Editor sections gave the larger law student body a context in which to discuss law school issues large and small, serving as an analogue social media platform specific to the Law School. Among many other topics, students frequently shared their opinions on their courses; these letters were required to be signed by their author, but the lack of anonymity did not seem to deter students from strongly wording their critiques. A contemporary reader may wonder if these students would be as willing to speak out in a face-to-face classroom setting as they were in The Pleader or HOOPS; like in an online forum or comments section, the removed context of the newsletter may have offered students the freedom to speak more candidly, especially in a newsletter by and for their peers. Despite their student focus, these newsletters were not simply echo chambers for student opinion: as The Pleader gained popularity (and perhaps notoriety) on campus, it also became widely read among faculty and administration members, including those on the receiving end of student criticism. The newsletters allowed such faculty members to respond to criticism that had been printed in previous issues, and dialogue often developed in the Letters to the Editor section from issue to issue. Perhaps because the student-run newsletter prioritized the student voice above any other, students often had the final word in such printed exchanges that involved authority figures like professors.
For example, a 1978 issue of The Pleader printed a brief letter to the editor from a law student concerned about professors’ grade turnover. Without naming any faculty members, the student is far from shy in her criticism. “What I want to know is this,” she begins. “What are our professors getting paid for if they can never grade our exams within anything approaching a reasonable time?” In the following issue, a law professor submitted a rebuttal to this letter, denouncing the student’s critique and taking the greatest issue with the student’s jab at faculty members’ compensation. “I could be making 300% to 500% more money than I am making here by practicing law, and my colleagues can say the same. Therefore, I would suggest that your tuition be at least quadrupled, so that law professors can earn an income that would be on par with what they could earn on the outside.”
Student responses to the professor’s rebuttal flooded the following Pleader issue. Nearly 3 pages were dedicated to letters to the editor regarding the professor’s defense of his work, many matching or escalating the biting tone of the previous issues’ letters. “[The professor] suggests that he could quintuple his income in practice,” one student writes. “Perhaps. But I wonder if he would still have time to produce Broadway shows and do leisurely research in areas which interest him.” Another student submitted a clever metaphor that would be legible to anyone who had been following this exchange: “A accepts employment as a garbage collector. He subsequently decides not to empty cans on the north or west side of any street or alley because: (a) it’s a pain in the neck; and (b) he could make more money as a plumber. Logical?” It is easy to imagine such sharp retorts to an authority figure (one who may or may not control these students’ grades) igniting conversation around the law school and even altering the dynamic between students and faculty at the time.