Op-ed: A Teaching Lesson for Congressman Doyle from Professor Dickinson | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Op-ed: A Teaching Lesson for Congressman Doyle from Professor Dickinson

click to enlarge Jerry Dickinson inside his classroom at the University of Pittsburgh - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Jerry Dickinson inside his classroom at the University of Pittsburgh
In the afternoon of May 5th, Congressman Mike Doyle stated in the City Paper, “It’s disappointing that Jerry Dickinson is distorting the letter we sent to the NAACP and leaders in the African-American community.”

As a tenured constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, I take great pride in teaching law students about the importance of credibility, integrity and honesty. As a candidate for Congress, I similarly place utmost emphasis on the credibility of our elected officials and our democratic institutions.

Recent statements made by Congressman Mike Doyle offer a teaching moment beyond the classroom. Mr. Doyle uses the terminology “distortion” in his response to critiques of his letter to the NAACP. The word “distortion,” according to Black’s Law Dictionary, means “to give a false meaning to something and to misrepresent.” With that in mind, I’d like to draw upon the law of evidence to show how Mr. Doyle’s prior inconsistent statements raise questions about his credibility.

Let’s start with the law.


The rules of evidence provide guidance as to what evidence is considered relevant and admissible during civil and criminal court proceedings. Prior inconsistent statements made by a witness, for example, may be attacked to question the credibility of the witness during a trial. While Mr. Doyle is not a witness in civil or criminal court, he is a witness in the court of public opinion as a candidate for public office.

Now, let’s move to the facts.

On March 12, 2020, the Executive Director of the NAACP Pittsburgh Chapter sent an invitation to me and Mr. Doyle to debate issues related to the African American community, including among other things, disparities in life expectancy, health outcomes, income equality and educational outcomes in the region. On May 1, 2020, in a letter to the NAACP, Congressman Doyle, according to numerous reporters, declined to accept the debate. He responded to the NAACP’s request for a debate by making the following statements:

“I deeply regret that I will be unable to participate in your debate ...

“The Congressional schedule is in flux due to the Coronavirus and we could be called back at any time. Therefore, it would be impossible for me to commit to a date at this time ...

“I would encourage you [NAACP] to inform your members of the League of Women Voters Debate and to submit questions of interest to your organization.”

On Tuesday, I stated, "I’m extremely disappointed in Congressman Doyle’s decision to turn down debate on the pervasive racial disparities in this district.”

That same afternoon, Mr. Doyle told WESA and City Paper that “he did not decline the invitation outright, but told the NAACP he couldn't commit to a date for the debate because the congressional schedule is undetermined amid the coronavirus.”

Here, within just a matter of days, Mr. Doyle made contradictory and inconsistent remarks. He first stated, on the record, “I deeply regret that I will be unable to participate in your debate.” A clear declination. He then contradicted himself with an inconsistent admission, on the record, that he did not decline the invitation.

click to enlarge Excerpt from a letter to the NAACP Pittsburgh Branch from Mike Doyle
Excerpt from a letter to the NAACP Pittsburgh Branch from Mike Doyle

If Mr. Doyle was a witness on trial, a sophisticated lawyer would tactfully raise the inconsistent statements and question his credibility. This is called witness impeachment, a method of asking questions that disputes the credibility of a testifying witness at trial. Impeaching a witness is damaging. It causes the jury to question his credibility.


The court of public opinion — the jury — has reason to question Mr. Doyle’s credibility as an elected official. In an age of widespread misinformation and an all out assault on facts from the leaders of our government, this kind of deceit is unbecoming of a 25 year member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a betrayal of the public’s trust.

What is truly disappointing is to see Mr. Doyle — a Democrat — resorting to tactics of deception typically utilized by the far-right. Not only that, but Mr. Doyle’s remarks are simply patronizing. They assume that the average person is somehow unable or unwilling to decipher the meaning of his original statement in his May 1st letter to the NAACP.

Of course, it is up to the jury — the public — to make the final determination as to whether Mr. Doyle made inconsistent and contradictory statements. However, there is clear and convincing evidence to suggest Mr. Doyle’s prior statements seriously call into question his credibility. It also shows that his accusation of distortion is an empty and hollow last resort to repair the damage he caused.


Jerry Dickinson is a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a candidate in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District race.

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