Law Students Shout Down Controversial Speakers

Students shouted down speakers at Yale and UC Hastings earlier this month, prompting questions about free speech, academic freedom and the employability of those who disrupted the events.

March 23, 2022
 
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While an event at Yale Law School continued, despite interruptions, a controversial speaker at UC Hastings was shut down.

Two protests, two law schools, two controversial speakers. The difference? One event went ahead, despite repeated disruptions, at Yale Law School. The other, at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, descended into chaos: the speaker was unable to eke out more than a few words before students shut him down, chanting, clapping and banging on desks in protest.

Both events were put on by the Federalist Society, a conservative group with chapters on college campuses. One event featured a poster with the Federalist Society logo and the motto “Debate. Discuss. Decide.” But on both campuses, student protesters had already decided on their stance, leaving little room for debate or discussion.

At UC Hastings, Ilya Shapiro—who is currently on leave from Georgetown Law School over a controversial tweet—was supposed to take part in a March 1 discussion on the Supreme Court replacement for retiring justice Stephen Breyer. At Yale, Kristen Waggoner, general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative advocacy group, took part in a March 10 discussion on civil liberties that ultimately continued despite student interruptions.

Now the fallout from both incidents has some in the legal world decrying the state of free speech at U.S. law schools and even warning against hiring the disruptive protesters.

What Happened at Yale

Perhaps best known for its legal battles against LGBTQ+ rights, the Alliance Defending Freedom has long been criticized for social views that demonize the LGBTQ+ community, earning it a hate group designation from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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While it wasn’t those controversies that brought ADF general counsel Kristen Waggoner to Yale earlier this month—she was there to discuss a case involving a student prohibited from sharing his faith on campus due to restrictive speech policies—those were the issues students focused on. Holding signs supporting the rights of transgender people and other LGBTQ+ causes, dozens of students interrupted Waggoner, with one protester loudly proclaiming, “I’ll literally fight you, bitch.”

When the disruptions started in the classroom where the discussion was being held, moderator Kate Stith, a Yale Law professor, successfully eased tensions enough for the event to continue. Stith reminded students of Yale’s free speech policies—for which she was jeered—before getting the panel back on track.

But as students exited the room, they continued shouting and making noise in the hall. In a video clip from the event, students can be heard protesting loudly outside the room as panelists try to speak. Monica Miller from the American Humanist Association joined Waggoner in the discussion, though Miller was not the target of the protest. She did not respond to a request for comment.

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Some reports indicate that the protest also disrupted multiple other classes and events.

“What ended up happening was students—it sounds like about 120, I don’t know the exact count—came to shout down speakers, to interrupt those speakers,” Waggoner told Inside Higher Ed. “They were entering and exiting the classroom to try to disrupt it and then were pounding on the walls outside of the classroom as well. So there was intimidation that occurred.”

The Yale Federalist Society did not respond to a request for comment, nor did multiple students who signed an open letter accusing the law school of undermining “our community’s values of equity and inclusivity at a time when LGBTQ youth are actively under attack in Texas, Florida, and other states.” The letter goes on to call out Yale for “the deeply disrespectful presence of ADF on campus and the faculty moderator’s dismissal of our peaceful action as childish.” It also raises concern over the presence of armed police officers at the protest.

In a response to Inside Higher Ed, Yale spokesperson Debra Kroszner explained that police were at the event because Waggoner brought her own security. In such cases, university policy is to “work with the police to determine the appropriate level of support for the particular visitor and/or event,” according to an email from Kroszner.

“At the very start of the March 10 event, when students began to make noise, the moderator read the University’s free speech policy for the first time,” Kroszner said. “At that point, the students exited the event, and it went forward. When students made noise in the hallways, administrators and staff instructed students to stop. During this time, Yale Law School staff spoke to [Yale Police Department] officers who were already on hand about whether assistance might be needed in the event the students did not follow those instructions. Fortunately, that assistance was not needed and the event went forward until its conclusion. Members of the administration are nonetheless in serious conversation with students about our free speech policies, expectations, and norms.”

The university did not provide details on any potential disciplinary actions, but Waggoner said that punishment designated for violations of university policies would be the appropriate response, and that she’s “deeply disturbed that Yale is not condemning that behavior now.”

What Happened at UC Hastings

Shapiro was supposed to speak alongside UC Hastings law professor Rory Little on March 1 about the Supreme Court vacancy created by Breyer’s retirement, a timely topic coming a few days after Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination in late February. But Shapiro arrived at UC Hastings with controversy swirling around an earlier tweet regarding the nomination.

The tweet—now deleted—came in late January in reference to news that President Biden would nominate a then-unnamed Black woman to the nation’s highest court. Shapiro suggested at the time that D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals chief judge Sri Srinivasan would be the “best pick” but that he “doesn’t fit into the latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get lesser black woman.”

The phrase “lesser black woman” has followed Shapiro off Twitter and into the real world, prompting both his leave from Georgetown Law and student uproar at UC Hastings earlier this month. At UC Hastings, student protestors held signs referencing the term and chanted “I am not lesser” as well as “support Black women” and various other slogans, which can be seen in a 53-minute video of the event.

Shapiro, introduced to speak before Little, never had the chance to address students despite multiple attempts. Protesters interrupted Shapiro repeatedly, some ridiculing his hairline, others calling him a coward, a racist and a string of other names. One student stood directly next to Shapiro at the podium as he attempted to speak after briefly leaving the room.

Morris Ratner, the academic dean and provost at UC Hastings, tried to restore order, urging students to recognize the value of free speech and allow Shapiro a chance to share his views.

But ultimately, despite Ratner’s efforts, Shapiro left without being heard.

“You’d think that law students should have a particular appreciation for spirited and open engagement with provocative ideas. After all, they’ve chosen a career that centers on argument and persuasion,” Shapiro said via email. “I’d welcome the opportunity to return to Hastings—or anywhere—to discuss the Supreme Court or constitutional law. It’s even more important to have a national reckoning about our inability to discuss controversial issues without canceling our opponents.”

An email from UC Hastings leadership on March 2 reminded students of the law school’s academic freedom policies and student code of conduct. Administrators noted that “disrupting an event to prevent a speaker from being heard is a violation of our policies and norms.”

UC Hastings did not respond to questions about potential disciplinary action for such violations.

The email to students also noted, “the act of silencing a speaker is fundamentally contrary to the values of this school as an institution of higher learning; it is contrary to the pedagogical mission of training students for a profession in which they will prevail through the power of analysis and argument.”

In response to the email, students at UC Hastings are circulating an open letter asking leadership not to punish those involved in the Shapiro protest. Other demands include creating new procedures for speakers invited by student organizations; adding additional student seats to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group and Campus Climate Advisory Committee; hiring faculty members who specialize in critical race theory or related topics; and requiring students to complete a critical race theory or race and law course to graduate.

“By threatening disciplinary action for student demonstrators, the Deans both continued a pattern of ignoring [Black, Indigenous and people of color] student trauma, pain, and concern, but also created new trauma, pain, and concern for student organizers and protesters,” UC Hastings student Madeline Cline wrote in an email. “They have since privately claimed that they will not move forward with disciplinary action, but they have not yet publicly made that promise.”

Fallout of the Protests

As news of the protests has spread, so too has the outrage in certain legal circles.

Days after the event, U.S. Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman sent an email to a judicial Listserv urging his peers to think carefully before hiring any of the protesters at Yale as law clerks. “All federal judges—and all federal judges are presumably committed to free speech—should carefully consider whether any student so identified should be disqualified for potential clerkships,” Silberman wrote.

But to some observers, such statements are simply bluster.

“The kind of students protesting at Yale would never get hired by Justice Silberman, anyway. Let’s be real. Many circuit judges seek to hire law clerks who think like them—this is not a secret,” said Josh Blackman, a law professor at South Texas College of Law. “I don’t think there’s much relevance to that email. I think he simply articulates the old-guard way of thinking about it.”

Of greater concern, academics say, are the larger implications for the future of academic freedom and freedom of speech when law school students are shutting down speakers invited to take part in campus conversations.

“I think what’s happening on a sociological level is that there’s a huge clash of values between people of the generation being educated now and potentially the generation that is educating,” said Erica Goldberg, a law professor at the University of Dayton School of Law.

Goldberg added that this conflict extends beyond law schools, all the way down to undergraduates.

“I think that there is an increasing set of values that just says the only solution to certain social problems is to shut down all discourse about them, to shame all people who pose what some people believe is an existential threat to their identity,” she said. “And the prevailing view before that, I think, was largely ‘let people speak, let’s engage with them and potentially, we’ll learn from each other.’”

That’s a view that Blackman—who was protested at CUNY Law School in 2018—seconds.

“It’s jarring to think that if they actually talked to Ilya for a few minutes, they might think differently of him,” Blackman said. “But because they’ve never stopped screaming at him, they never got the chance, they just assume from one or two bad tweets that this is a person who deserves to be excommunicated from society and has no redeeming grace. That’s why I think the right to speak is important. Listen to what he has to say—maybe he’ll surprise you. But simply rejecting his presence on campus eliminates the possibility that you’re able to learn from someone.”

Both Blackman and Goldberg suggest that professors often self-censor lest they offend students. With that in mind, they believe that bringing in speakers to challenge students’ views can offer valuable perspectives they might not otherwise get in the classroom, even from tenured faculty.

Goldberg adds that it’s rare for law schools to invite provocateurs to speak and that most visitors are within a range of reasonable viewpoints open to discussion. And while she doesn’t believe sweeping conclusions about the state of legal education can be drawn from these two incidents, she is alarmed that speakers are being shut down and believes there is a trend toward sanitizing discussions.

Blackman believes that as students settle back onto campus after being remote during the COVID-19 pandemic, such protests of controversial speakers may become even more common.

Goldberg points to soaring costs in higher education as one reason students may feel emboldened; given the high price of many colleges, students expect to be treated more like customers.

“As the price of education goes up, students feel increasingly entitled and perhaps justified to a certain type of education that meets their needs as consumers,” Goldberg said. “But that’s really bad for education. If you can just pay your way into thinking you’re educated, that’s just bribing people for a degree—it’s not truly being educated. And this consumerist model is leading to students, I think, having some amount of power that is ultimately not good for them, not good for their edification, their education, their enrichment, their training, their thinking.”

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