A Brief History of NULS Student Newsletters, Part 3: Trash or Treasure? Perception of The Pleader and HOOPS by the Campus at Large

Unfortunately, little documentation survives to offer a full understanding of how The Pleader and HOOPS were perceived by their communities during the time of their publication. The newsletters themselves printed letters that praised and disparaged the newsletters’ content, but the newsletters were rarely mentioned in other primary sources written about and for Northwestern Law. Although editors of The Pleader and HOOPS frequently mentioned deans of the Law School and other administration officials, the degree to which the administration discussed the newsletters in official and unofficial channels is unclear. One source that did mention the newsletters is Northwestern Law’s The Reporter, a magazine that chronicled events and alumni news. The Pritzker Legal Research Center has a rich collection of digitized Reporter issues, and searching this digital collection revealed that The Reporter acknowledged the existence of The Pleader twice around the time of the latter’s foundation. First, the Summer 1978 issue of The Reporter mentioned The Pleader in passing in the essay “A Report on the Year 1977-78, Northwestern University School of Law” by Dean David S. Ruder: “A new student newspaper, The Pleader, has added spice, wit, criticism, and current events to the Law School scene.” Later, the Fall 1978 issue of The Reporter dedicated half a page to The Pleader in an essay about the newsletter’s first year of publication (see illustration). Describing The Pleader’s role as “an open forum for the Law School community [that] strives to be responsive to all areas of the School”, the author plainly recounted the historical formation of the newsletter, naming the founding editors and listing some of the contents of each issue. Besides describing The Pleader as adding “spice”, there is little characterization of the critical role that The Pleader undertook. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, The Reporter made no mention of HOOPS at all. Further research is required to see if The Pleader or HOOPS were described in non-digitized Northwestern publications. 

Despite this apparent dearth in written acknowledgement, both The Pleader and HOOPS were keen to report any opinions expressed by Law School officials about the newsletters, which usually took the form of verbal statements. For example, a 1987 issue of HOOPS ran a cover story describing how a senior faculty member was overheard referring to HOOPS as “trash”. The outrage in the article was palpable: “To disparage this forum is to disparage the many who have sacrificed their time and effort to contribute articles, features, and information; to cheapen their contribution is to demean a valuable asset of law school life.” The responses in the following issue raised questions about the validity of both the faculty member’s remark and HOOPS’s outraged response. In a letter to the editors, one student criticized HOOPS for printing the equivalent of gossip by choosing not to confirm the quote with the faculty member. “It all leads to the conclusion that HOOPS editors are more interested in bashing [the faculty member] than promoting ‘constructive criticism’ or dialogue and providing reliable information,” the student wrote. He also questioned HOOPS’s own character, which seemed to embrace bawdy humor to the point of self-identifying as a “trashy” publication:  

“These are the same editors who dish out plenty of ‘disparaging’ remarks in the Bar Review. And this is, after all, the same publication that prints [the f-word] in a headline and runs cut-outs of NULS faculty in embarrassing costumes and poses. The Sun-Times has been called trash for a lot less. It’s all a lot of fun, and I always enjoy reading HOOPS. It is definitely a ‘valuable asset of law school life,’ as HOOPS editors put it. But sometimes, in some parts, it’s just trash. So what? Are those parts meant to be anything else?” 

On the same page, a wry letter from a professor – indeed, the same professor who wrote the infamous “300-500%” letter back in 1978 — denounced the faculty member’s comment while artfully offering his own attack. “Since I am only objecting to [the faculty member’s] characterization, and not offering an affirmative proposal of my own, I will refrain from attempting to characterize your publication in a mere word. (Actually, the word ‘mere’ itself might be good for starters.) I think you should apply your ingenuity to this task and come up with a self-characterization. You might begin by investigating the ecological significance of the felling of forests to provide thin products upon which symbols of dubious significance are imprinted.” A careful reader might notice that this professor’s name is included in HOOPS’s list of staff members on the issue’s second page, his involvement offering a tacit endorsement to offset the biting tone of his letter. 

Did more readers think of HOOPS as trash or as a valuable asset to the Law School community? As the student letter suggests, there may have been some validity to both stances. Even to a contemporary reader, it is clear that some portions of HOOPS – and The Pleader – included gossip, bawdy humor, and cheap jokes about professors with no basis in legitimate critique. A 1986 issue of HOOPS (see illustration) included a collage of faculty member faces pasted onto models in bikinis, an illustration that might be considered more juvenile than substantive in its content. The Pleader also took its share of jabs at faculty members, such as in heavily annotated caricatures (see illustration). However, the comedy in the newsletters was sometimes used to explore substantive issues, similar to the contemporary parody publication The Onion; a 1987 issue of HOOPS included one such satirical page that discussed censorship (see illustration). Moreover, even at its silliest, the indulgence in jokes for their own sake cannot fully offset the role of these student newsletters in providing a unique, widely-read forum in which students offer critique to the institution receiving their tuition. The Pleader and HOOPS provided a unique means by which to engage in discussions and share law school experiences, cultivating a kind of community in its readership that may not have existed before or since.

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Library Assistant, Pritzker Legal Research Center, Northwestern University

Posted in Archives, Law School History, Library Resources, Uncategorized
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