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Editorial Power: Balancing Content and Legal Scholarship

- Tony Frank, JGRJ Student Writer, 2008-09

Friday, September 26, 2008


Jocelyn Simonson chronicles the unique editing process used for an article that was recently published in The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review in Breaking the Silence: Legal Scholarship as Social Change. The original article was written by a prison inmate named Thomas O’Bryant, who is serving a life sentence in Florida. O’Bryant is a self-taught pro se litigant who had represented himself and other prisoners in various legal matters for over ten years at the time the article was published. O’Bryant’s article drew on a deep reservoir of personal experience and combined it with legal scholarship to create a unique and poignant critique of the appeals process as it effects prisoners’ ability to effectively represent themselves. O’Bryant argued that among other things, the stringent deadlines for appeals, the inaccessibility of necessary resources, and lawmaker’s failure to take into account the education level of most prison inmates have made it almost impossible for prisoners to have a chance for a successful appeal.

The editing process was a challenge for the student editors of the Law Review because of the unique position O’Bryant was in. The power of his article was in the perspective he was able to obtain from his position within the system and the compelling personal stories that exemplified the failures of the appeals process as it applies to prison inmates. O’Bryant’s piece was not a typical piece of legal scholarship like what would normally be published in the Law Review. O’Bryant is not a legal scholar or a Professor, and his style of writing therefore differed greatly from what the journal writers were accustomed to.

This placed the editors in a difficult position. The goal was to edit O’Bryant’s article to fit into the world of legal scholarship without changing the spirit or power of his piece. Simonson and the other student editors were cognizant of their position of power as editors and made sure to tread lightly when making changes. Whenever the editors felt that something needed to be changed, but that it might change the message of the piece, they worked with O’Bryant and let him make the necessary updates on his own. At all times they tried to be sensitive to the author’s intent.

The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review editors’ experience with this article reminds us that as writers and editors it is important to always keep the goals and intentions of our writers in mind. Our position of power allows us to greatly influence the voice of the writers who we publish in the pages of our journals. We must constantly remind ourselves that our goal is to help the writer tell his story as effectively as possible without changing it to reflect our personal world view.

Perhaps more importantly, Simonson’s article fuels the discussion surrounding what should be considered for publication in our journals. Should a compelling story be selected for publication if it does not reflect the scholarship of a traditional journal publication? Simonson and her fellow editors seem to think so. Perhaps the decision to publish such an article should be done with respect to a balancing test. The more compelling and powerful the article, the more willing we may be as editors to forgive a lack of traditional scholarship in favor of working with the author to tell an important story. Balancing the scholarship of the paper and the intrigue of the article’s subject matter will allow us to select a wide range of articles for publication and assist us in furthering the goals and aspirations of our journal.