For Professor Anne Coughlin, the law is about much more than rules and doctrines — the law is a discourse that relies on storytelling for its descriptive claims and prescriptive guidance. For example, she pointed out, the holdings of cases are like “punchlines whose meanings emerge from the stories that judges tell to support them.” Yet, she said, lawmakers over the generations have been inattentive and even hostile to the stories of women and girls, as well as those of people of color, LGBTQ individuals and Native Americans.
Those are the concerns targeted by the Sound Justice Lab, a new interdisciplinary gender justice initiative at the University of Virginia, co-directed by Coughlin and music professors Nomi Dave and Bonnie Gordon.
The lab, which launched July 1, received a three-year, $1 million grant from UVA’s Democracy Initiative to locate, listen to, and amplify voices and experiences that have been neglected by the institutional actors and processes that are charged with dispensing justice.
“One of our most basic objectives is to influence pedagogy both in law school classes and elsewhere,” Coughlin said. “Think about whose voices have the most power in public spaces, which include classrooms. What do those voices sound like? Whose claims and interests are heard and considered relevant, and whose are not? Our lab will study what justice sounds like and looks like when some voices are given a hearing and others are not.”
Coughlin began collaborating with UVA music professor Bonnie Gordon when they were tapped to serve on University committees and initiatives together. Many of these initiatives focused on the climate for women at UVA, and others involved the harm inflicted on UVA and Charlottesville by the Unite the Right Rally in August 2017. They soon began seeking each other out to discuss other gender and anti-racist projects, and they became committed to creating a vehicle to support a range of related projects involving community-building, creative advocacy and public service.
Gordon put Coughlin in touch with Dave while Dave was in the early stages of working on her film “Big Mouth,” the story of a 2018 lawsuit against Guinean journalist Moussa Yéro Bah. The case ignited debates around sexual assault, public speech, voice, gender and protest in Guinea. When Dave wanted to talk about connections between the Guinean case and the #MeToo movement, she contacted Coughlin and the professors talked at length about the legal and social technologies that silence women’s voices.
“Nomi, Bonnie and I were talking about this whole collection of issues, each from our different disciplinary perspectives,” Coughlin recalled. “We wanted to know, when justice claims made by women and girls are silenced, where do the voices go? Those voices will rise somewhere, and we are committed to hearing, listening and advocating for them.”
Among the initiative’s first events, Coughlin and Gordon held a public talk and discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on June 29 at the Law School. The ruling overturned Roe v. Wade and said there was no constitutional right to abortion under the 14th Amendment.
The Dobbs court’s interpretation of constitutional “liberty” was misguided, Coughlin said, because it relied on a narrow view of what the ratifiers of the amendment would have thought about abortion access rather than on a methodology that takes account of the nation’s evolving traditions about the meaning of liberty and equality.
“Of course, ‘people’ did not ratify the 14th Amendment, the [Dobbs] dissenters point out — men did,” she said at the event. “So it is perhaps not so surprising that the ratifiers were not perfectly attuned to the importance of reproductive rights for women’s liberty, or for their capacity to participate as equal members of our nation.” (Coughlin is teaching a course on the law post-Dobbs with Professor Naomi Cahn this fall.)
Coughlin said the lab’s programming will aim to influence classroom pedagogy by bringing different stakeholders and experts together to think holistically about how culture has shaped justice. For example, scholars on legal theory, literary theory and music theory will participate in the lab’s “Narrating Rap/Narrating Law” symposium scheduled for Oct. 27-28. She said there’s a growing trend nationwide of using rap lyrics to prosecute performers in criminal cases.
“There are many cases in which prosecutors are relying on rap music as evidence of guilt or as a crime itself,” Coughlin said. “These cases raise the difficult question of whether people of color are being demonized and even convicted for their artistic expression.”
Coughlin, who clerked at the Supreme Court, joined the Law School faculty in 1996 and is the Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Professor of Law. Her primary research and teaching interests are in the areas of criminal law, criminal procedure, feminist jurisprudence, law and public service, and law and the humanities.
The Democracy Initiative was established in 2018 by the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and the Miller Center for Public Affairs. It is designed to engage a wide audience in examining the challenges confronting democracies today.
Part of the initiative’s work includes creating interdisciplinary labs to tackle specific political and structural issues connected to democracy, such as statecraft or the media. In addition to the Sound Justice Lab, the initiative manages six other issue labs, including the Corruption Lab on Ethics, Accountability, and the Rule of Law, or CLEAR, in which law professors Deborah Hellman and Michael Gilbert are participants.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.