When is it acceptable to speak ill of the dead?

To anyone who loves reading legal arguments and opinions, it is deliciously appropriate that the usual platitudes in the wake of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has sparked a dissent.

But that’s what happened at the Georgetown Law School in Washington over the weekend when a statement was issued under the name of the school’s dean, William M. Treanor.

Like countless academics, I learned a great deal from his opinions and his scholarship. In the history of the Court, few Justices have had such influence on the way in which the law is understood. On a personal level, I am deeply grateful for his remarkably generous involvement with our community, including his frequent appearances in classes and his memorable lecture to our first year students this past November.”

Justice Scalia most recently visited the Law Center on November 16, when he delivered a 20-minute talk on education to the first-year class. His talk was followed by more than 30 minutes of responses to written student questions. How much influence do Scalia’s law clerks have on his opinions? “More than my colleagues,” the justice replied, to great laughter.

“The justice offered first-year students his insights and guidance, and he stayed with the students long after the lecture was over,” Treanor said. “He cared passionately about the profession, about the law and about the future, and the students who were fortunate enough to hear him will never forget the experience. We will all miss him.”

That set off a couple of professors who found no reason to mourn Scalia, as posted by the Above the Law blog.

Mike Seidman to Dean Treanor and faculty:

Our norms of civility preclude criticizing public figures immediately after their death. For now, then, all I’ll say is that I disagree with these sentiments and that expressions attributed to the “Georgetown Community” in the press release issued this evening do not reflect the views of the entire community.

A classic burn, to be sure.

Professor Gary Peller was less reserved:

It is tricky knowing what to say when a public figure like Scalia, or the late Robert Byrd, or other voices of intolerance, meet their death. But as an academic institution, I believe that we should be wary of contributing to the mystification of people because of the lofty official positions they achieved. I don’t want to teach our students to hold someone like Scalia in reverence because he’s a “Supreme Court Justice.” Our proximity to official Washington provides an opportunity to see many public officials close-up, and to learn that there is nothing special that titles bestow–even a Supreme Court Justice can be a bigot, and there is no reason to be intimidated by the purported “brilliance” that others describe because, when you have a chance to see and hear such people close-up, the empowering effect is often, as it should be, de-mystification. (I was happy to meet Warren Burger as a law student for this very reason). We should never teach our students to be obsequious to those with power.

The school’s dean doubled down:

I issued a statement on Saturday saying that the law school community mourned the Justice’s death. As you may know, some faculty have disagreed with my statement. I am writing now to reaffirm my belief that this a time for us to mourn. Justice Scalia was an individual who provoked strong and divergent views; the debate about his legacy is long-standing, and it will continue for many years. But this moment is a moment of grief. It is a time of loss and a time when many in our community are in pain. It is a time for mourning.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Scalia’s death has certainly ignited plenty of debate and speculation over factors real or imagined. But it’s the more human question that demands debate, a debate that probably hasn’t reared its head in this country since the death of President Richard Nixon: When is the proper time — if ever — to opine that you’re not sad to see someone dead?