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Charles Nesson: Harvard law professor speaks his mind

Published:Sunday | May 23, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Harvard Law professor Charles Nesson with his wife, Fern (left), and Natalie St. Louis, marketing and business development services manager, Paymaster Jamaica Limited, at the launch of the SET Jamaica's Promise Foundation at the Jamaica Pegasus hotel on Tuesday, May 11 -Colin Hamilton/Freelance Photograplher

Barbara Ellington, Lifestyle Editor

Charles Nesson is the William F. Weld professor of law, Harvard Law School and founder/faculty co-director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He joined the Harvard Law School faculty in 1966, was tenured in 1969 and was the associate dean from 1979-1982.

Nesson has to his credit several publications, litigations and media presentations. He has done extensive work with Jamaica's prisons and was recently in Jamaica as the guest speaker for the launch of Paymaster Jamaica Limited's SET-Jamaica's Promise Foundation. He is married to Fern Leicher Nesson; they have two daughters, Rebecca and Leila.

The Gleaner's Lifestyle Editor Barbara Ellington interviewed Nesson via the Internet.

Besides the beauty of the landscape and the warmth of the people, what are your reasons for using the Berkman Center for Internet and Society to help Jamaica?

It is really the other way round. I founded the Berkman Center to demonstrate the transformative potential of the cyber environment. I have always believed that Jamaica has great potential in the cyber environment, perhaps more than any other developing nation. Jamaica's greatest asset is its unique character. Jamaican character in the ideal is charismatic, spiritual, strong, artistic, musical, beautiful, independent, free thinking, truth-speaking. Character is the currency of credibility in cyberspace and I believe that if Jamaica can convey its spirit it can benefit greatly and it can teach the world.

Through wide-ranging and honest discussions, I believe Jamaica can bring its disparate parts together, frame its brand in cyberspace, and set an example for peaceful dispute moderation. SET-Jamaica's Promise strategy of dispute resolution involves putting adversaries around a table and airing things out. That is why I am excited to partner with this foundation and to aid Jamaica in any way I can with and through the use of Internet technology.

Expand on your theory of education as a revolution to change the future of countries like Jamaica, you spoke about this at the launch of SET-Jamaica's Promise.

My theory of education is that it should be fun and rewarding, and include teaching in how to moderate and resolve disputes — and that technology can greatly assist both teaching and learning.

How would you describe the progress made by Jamaica's technological development over the years that you have been visiting Jamaica?

Jamaica has done well in installing computer labs throughout the island but has yet to commit to using the hardware in a sustained, innovative and educational manner.

Name five things that could reform Jamaica's prison system.

Number One would be to change the real mission of the correctional services from warehousing to rehabilitating prisoners, which means helping them to rehabilitate themselves. Two through five don't need listing because all follow

Harvard law professor speaks his mind need listing because all follow from Number One.

With the high crime rate in Jamaica and as someone looking on from the outside, what other realistic steps can we take to combat crime?

I am reluctant to give an opinion since I am an outsider. For what it is worth, I think Jamaica should legalise drugs, beginning with marijuana. I have seen in the United States, and assume it to be true in Jamaica as well, that criminalising drug use creates organised and violent crime and does nothing to solve the social issues presented by drug use.

Jamaica needs leaders willing to put real issues on the table, speak real truth about them, and address them in real ways.

What propelled you to become involved in civil-rights issues? Was there a positively defining moment between you and black folks back home?

I first confronted race injustice against black people after I graduated from law school and was working as a law clerk to a justice of the US Supreme Court. I saw death sentences affirmed for black defendants who had been convicted by all-white juries of raping white women. This led me to give up my initial intention to become a tax lawyer. Instead I went to work in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice prosecuting civil rights cases in the South during the days of Martin Luther King's movement. I have continued to do civil-rights work as a professor and teacher throughout my career.

Another law professor from Harvard, Charles Ogletree, taught the Obamas at Harvard. Did you teach him or come in contact with him; if so, what kind of student was he?

I never had the privilege of teaching Obama but did come into contact with him in his capacity as president of the Harvard Law Review. At that year's closing banquet, my wife and I heard him speak. He was awesome: brilliant, charismatic and self-possessed. At the time I remember saying to my wife, "This man could become president of the United States some day."

You told me that you admire him (President Obama), why is this so? Knowing him as you do, and with your intimate knowledge of American law, why do you think his choice for the latest Supreme Court vacancy is not more of a liberal?

Elena Kagan is a strong woman who plays her cards close and well. She will be a powerful judicial force. As dean she presided effectively over a very liberal institution.

I have met people from age 19 to 90 who have said, given America's racist history, they did not expect to see a black president of the United States in their lifetime. Given what you know of your country, did you expect it, and as time goes by, does it even matter to you now?

I did not expect it, and I believe that it matters very much. Obama's election was a great event in the history of my country toward progress ending racism. His promise is still before him and racism surely remains.

What else would you like to accomplish in your life's work?

I would like, in my role as dean of cyberspace, to relate to classrooms in Jamaica through the Internet, along with other teachers and some of my students, in ways that enliven classes in your schools and prisons. I would like to continue to promote open education for students and teachers and parents throughout the world. I would like to see Jamaica come into its own, both at home and abroad, as a model of self-development, and I would very much like to help in this effort. In many ways, I feel that I am (or have become) a Jamaican myself.

How has the poker initiative been going?

Very well, thank you. Poker, for me, is a way of thinking and teaching strategies to solve problems of many different kinds.

barbara.ellington@gleanerjm.com