As a legal historian, Laura Weinrib hopes her scholarship will challenge people to rethink their assumptions and biases about the present as well as the past. She believes that highlighting the complexities and contingencies of history can open space for new approaches to today's social problems.
Weinrib will bring her insights to Chicago Law students this year when she joins the Law School's faculty, initially as an Instructor in Law while she completes her PhD in history at Princeton University, then in July 2011 as an Assistant Professor of Law.
"History is one of the most powerful means of evaluating the complicated relationship between law and the broader social world," Weinrib said. In tracing the development of law-related advocacy and ideas, she looks for lost alternatives to entrenched legal concepts. "With temporal and critical distance, we can see how lawyers, judges, and activists have transformed legal categories, culturally and doctrinally-and how those reconfigured categories have, in turn, constrained the choices available to subsequent actors."
Weinrib comes to the Law School from the New York University School of Law, where she was a Samuel I. Golieb Fellow in Legal History. She holds an AB and AM from Harvard University and a JD from Harvard Law School. Before beginning her graduate studies in history, she clerked for Judge Thomas Ambro of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Her PhD thesis examines the emergence of a libertarian model of free speech in the United States between World War I and World War II, an interest that began during law school, when she was editor of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. "Today, self-described civil libertarians clash over issues like hate speech and campaign finance reform, which seem to pit a strong American commitment to dignity and equality against an even more powerful allegiance to liberty," she says. "What I have discovered in my research is that our modern notion of civil liberties as freedom from state interference with private behavior and expression was a much contested development; as recently as the interwar period, organizations like the ACLU were devoted, above all, to social and economic equality, and they enlisted state support in accomplishing those goals."
Weinrib's other recent scholarship includes a book with a personal angle, published in fall 2009 by Syracuse University Press. Entitled Nitzotz ("Spark"), it examines an underground newspaper of the same name, circulated in the Dachau-Kaufering concentration camp and edited by her grandfather, Shlomo (Frenkel) Shafir. The articles within Nitzotz, which were devoted to political and ideological discussion, challenge the prevailing historical assumption that rational assessment of the future was impossible under such abject conditions.
Weinrib says she found it particularly gratifying to have completed the book during her grandfather's lifetime. "Working with him to prepare the manuscript, I have seen how strong and enduring his wartime idealism was," she says. "His commitment to writing as an instrument of political change shaped his life and his career as a journalist and historian."
At the Law School, Weinrib will teach labor law, constitutional law, family law, and legal history. In future research she expects to explore a broad range of topics, such as 20th-century family law, American legal thought, and the history of privacy.
A Minneapolis native, Weinrib says she is looking forward to returning to the Midwest after spending 15 years in the Northeast. She also is eager to join the Law School's intellectual community. Weinrib says she was initially attracted to the Law School for its well-known intellectual intensity and academic rigor. A visit made that reputation come to life.
"I was most struck by the vibrancy of the place-the curiosity, richness of dialogue, and openness to new ideas among professors and students alike," she says. "The faculty is genuinely committed to engaging with and improving each other's work. I feel tremendously fortunate to be joining the Law School community."