Justice vs. Law

The new season of “Whale Wars” started on Friday, and this year Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherds are heading north to the Faroe Islands, where killing pilot whales is a 1000 year old tradition among the islanders.

In this case, the Sea Shepherd’s intervention in the traditional kill has nothing to do with stopping an illegal activity.  Pilot whales are not protected and the kill is legal.   In the view of the Sea Shepherd’s however, that doesn’t make it right.   Watson summed it up by saying “…justice takes precedence over the law.”

I asked the kids if they agreed.    If a law gives someone the right to do something, can you still say it is unjust?   In the case of the whales, we all agreed that you could.    Whale meat is no longer necessary for the survival of the islanders.  In addition,  whales are wild animals who are very intelligent, social, and live in family units.    In my mind, slaughtering them in this manner is akin to rounding up an entire herd of elephants and killing all the adults.

[No, I'm not a vegetarian and am very aware of the fact that my consumption of beef, chicken and turkey could very well make my opinion in this matter seem a hypocritical one.  I believe it's a little different, but won't go into that here.]

Ok, so in the case of killing pilot whales it seems pretty obvious, at least to us, that justice and the law are not the same.

But what about in the case of the principal in a school on Long Island who threatened to call Child Protective Services on a mother, citing “educational neglect” because she requested that her son be allowed to opt-out of standardized testing.    The boy already had an IEP (Individual Education Plan), which my friends tell me means he has some special needs.   The mother felt the test would be counter-productive for her son (and in any case the tests are widely seen as ineffective) and spoke to the principal about it.   The principal denied her request and told her that if her son was absent on any day tests were administered,  attended school but refused to take the test, or failed to answer even ONE QUESTION on any of the tests, Child Protective Services might have to be called.   Lisa Nielsen wrote about the situation (in the above link) and urged people to write to the principal and demand an apology.

The responses posted in the comments came fast and furious.  The school started an “Our Principal is Not a Bully” page on Facebook.   Many people said he was “just following regulations”.    (Ahh, the old, “I’m just doing my job” excuse.)

It’s true.  New York State regulations give him the right to call CPS in the case of educational neglect, and failure to take a state mandated standardized test falls under the state’s definition of neglect.

So he has the law on his side.  Does that mean the threat was just?  Justified?  Having to do with justice?

Again, my answer would be no.

I love having these types of discussions with my kids.  The first time something like this came up, it was a revelation to them that a law might be unjust.  Of course we basically try to be “law abiding” citizens, but it is important to me that they be able to evaluate situations independently and not blindly follow along because “it’s the law”.    At book club the other night we were talking about the Holocaust – having just read “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”, and that led to a discussion of slavery.     We concluded that fear (Holocaust) and money (slavery, whaling) play large roles in encouraging people to ignore justice when faced with an unjust law.

It is one thing to say, as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison did, “That which is not just is not law” and another to do as he did and act accordingly.   We all hope that we would do the same, and the first step in that direction is being able to recognize a lack of justice, no matter what the law says.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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