In the last academic year, controversial speakers have been met with signs (and sometimes heckling) while speaking on some campuses. The former kind of protest showed up Thursday in San Francisco during a talk by John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.
The protest did not prevent Yoo from speaking, but it surprised many who were not expecting such a demonstration at a scholarly meeting.
Yoo remains controversial because of his work during the administration of President George W. Bush, when he held positions in the Justice Department. He wrote a memo in 2003 advising the Pentagon that laws and treaties barring torture did not apply to U.S. interrogators because of the president's wartime power. The memo has been considered influential in guiding the Bush administration into conduct that its critics characterize as torture, but that its defenders say were motivated by a desire to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States.
Ever since Yoo returned to Berkeley after finishing his work in Washington, critics have urged the administration to fire him. But others -- including some professors who find Yoo's views on torture offensive -- have said that firing him for his work in the Bush administration would violate principles of academic freedom by effectively punishing Yoo for his political views. Some of those protesting at the APSA said that they were not advocating his firing, but others backing the protest took to social media with the hashtag #firejohnyoo.
On Thursday, those protesting Yoo held signs denouncing him as someone responsible for torture, and they posted photos of the protest to social media. One person posed as a prisoner of the Iraq war.
Yoo was part of a roundtable Thursday on the future of the judiciary, and he is a panelist for another session today, on executive power during the Obama and Trump administrations.
In advance of the APSA annual meeting, some political scientists criticized the association for inviting Yoo to speak.
Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, posted an open letter with the title "When Political Scientists Legitimate Torturers." In the piece, he said Yoo should be viewed as responsible for torture.
“When it comes to torture, our minds often drift to the torturer or his higher-ups in the Pentagon and the CIA. But as Jane Mayer documented in The Dark Side, the torture regime of George W. Bush was very much a lawyers’ regime. As one of Yoo’s colleagues told Mayer, ‘It’s incredible, but John Yoo and [former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney] David Addington were running the war on terror almost on their own.’ Yoo’s memos were not the idle speculations of a cloistered academic; stamped with the seal of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the Justice Department, they had the force of law, issuing binding interpretations of existing statutes that could only be overturned by the attorney general.”
Steven Rathgeb Smith, executive director of APSA, said via email that because "the protesters were silent and respectful … no action by APSA was necessary." He said that the protest "followed our code of conduct," which "reminds APSA meeting participants that our professional academic ethics and norms apply as standards of behavior and interaction at the meeting."
Via email, Yoo offered the following account of his experience Thursday: "Some people held signs and stood silently for what struck me as a very long time. But it didn’t interfere with the panel presentations or the discussion. I couldn’t think of a better way to educate people who need it about the Constitution!"