The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (the state’s highest court) recently issued a surprising decision that permits claims against Harvard arising out of a series of daguerreotypes taken of the plaintiff’s ancestors in the 19th century by famed professor Louis Agassiz to proceed. While the SJC affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s property claims that sought outright ownership, the court reinstated claims for emotional distress. The decision held that the manner in which an educational institution responds to a grievance about something in its possession may itself be actionable in the context of the institution’s relationship to the historical facts. In stretching the bounds of the traditional causes of action for negligent or reckless infliction of emotional distress to reach a sympathetic set of facts, however, the SJC has effectively abolished limits on museum liability for collections created under problematic circumstances where the response to such claims is attacked creatively enough. The issue is not whether the result is fair to Harvard, or whether the plaintiff’s family deserves recognition and justice for what was done—they do. The problem with cases that are hard or impossible to limit is that they may lead to socially positive outcomes in one instance, but can be weaponized in the next. In an era when all manner of actors are politicizing what universities should or shouldn’t teach, this opinion creates innumerable opportunities for mischief. As a result, it raises First Amendment and Due Process concerns that Harvard might plausibly petition the Supreme Court to address.
Topics: due process, Supreme Judicial Court, SJC, Harvard, First Amendment, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, NAGPRA, Tamara Lanier, negligent infliction of emotional dismiss, Louis Agassiz, Daguerreotype, Renty Taylor, Delia Taylor, MFA, reckless infliction of emotional distress, Philip Guston, Drew Gilpin Faust