The invitation of two controversial speakers led to a walkout and a separate picket line protest at this year’s Yale Law Journal symposium on executive power.
When legal prodigy Kiwi Camara, who sparked protests at Harvard Law School when he used the word “nigs” to describe blacks in his class notes, spoke at a panel on Friday, nearly one-third of the students and professors in the packed room at the Yale Law School — including Law School Dean Harold Koh — stood in unison and walked out to a forum called “Disempowered Voices in Legal Academia,” set up in response to Camara’s visit.
But the Camara protest did not mark the end of controversy at the symposium. On Saturday morning, nearly 20 New Haven residents and law students picketed on Wall Street to protest a scheduled talk by John Yoo LAW ’92, a former deputy assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush ’68 who is best known as the co-author of the Patriot Act and as the architect of the Bush administration’s legal justification for torturing prisoners of war.
Koh said he left the Camara forum because he considers “racist speech to be an affront to each and every person in our community,” and because he was eager to hear the discussion at the alternative panel. He said Yoo had participated in several legal decisions that “were not only blatantly wrong, but have also stained our country’s reputation.” Still, Koh said the Law School lived up to its ideal of serving as a forum for free academic debate.
“Yale Law School has always been a tolerant forum, even for speakers who express or have expressed views we detest,” Koh said. “I was proud of our community this weekend. Both the alternative panel and the Law Journal symposium were meticulously planned, filled with honest and passionate engagement, and deeply illuminating.”
Walking out on Camara
Professor Ronald Sullivan, Jr., one of six black professors at Yale Law School, moderated the alternative forum, which featured several individuals engaged in research on topics ranging from the psychological effects of racially divisive issues on minorities to the difficulties women face in finding top jobs in the legal profession today.
In opening the forum, Simon Moshenberg LAW ’08 addressed the tension between the alternative panel — which was filled by nearly 200 students, almost one-third of the Law School — and the Law Journal’s forum.
“I just want to ask everybody to look around the room at the group of people that we have here,” he said to an audience that broke into uproarious applause. “This is the world I want to live in.”
Meanwhile, in opening his comments at the Law Journal symposium down the hall, Camara made only a minor allusion to the protests before continuing with his discourse on the executive.
“Well, I am delighted to be here,” Camara said after the walkout. “When I was applying to law school, Yale was the place that pursued me most fiercely. I gather that it is perhaps not entirely disappointed at the outcome of that pursuit. We’ll see if I can redeem myself a little bit with my paper.”
The panel on disempowerment first featured Yale psychology professor Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, who some students said raised the panel’s most powerful point, concerning those whose “identities have the potential to be marginalized.”
“The work that I’ve done … has now shown that situations that can confirm stereotypes, things like test-taking situations, law school panel reviews, talks, can undermine academic performance,” she said.
After the panel, Camara told the News he was not surprised by or disapproving of the walkout. He apologized to the Law Journal editors and school administration for the trouble his invitation had sparked.
“When you put together a symposium on executive power, part of the bargain is not dealing with a racial controversy that makes The New York Times,” he said.
Last year’s editor-in-chief of the Law Journal, Curtis Mahoney LAW ’06, said he was disappointed that the Yale Law community remains divided.
“I think that ideally what would have happened here is that we would have made the right decision on whether to withdraw the invitation and bring everyone together on both sides of the issue,” Mahoney said. “I think that we did one of those things — I think that we made the right decision. We didn’t do the other, and that is disappointing to me. We tried, but we failed.”
Mahoney said he was also disappointed in the implications of the alternative panel’s name and the timing of the panel, which prevented him and other journal editors from attending.
“I’m disappointed that in some ways this became more a protest of the journal than [anything],” he said. “It’s suggested that the big sin here was that the journal disempowered someone in making this decision, and I think that this is just an entirely incorrect premise.”
But his classmate Moshenberg said the Law Journal editors are to be blamed almost entirely for the student body’s not coming together.
“The law community was split when a small group of people took a decision without consulting with the community,” he said. “The actions that we took today were actually an attempt to bring some healing and progressive change, and bring us together as a community.”
Still, Jon Schmidt LAW ’06 said the panel was not an attempt to attack the Law Journal or even Camara, but rather a discussion of a larger issue.
“I think what this is about is trying to make something positive out of what has been a very negative, divisive, painful experience for many in the Law School community,” he said.
But Schmidt said he is concerned by the lack of effort by Law Journal editors and school administrators to use the incident to bring about positive change at the Law School.
Wally Adeyemo LAW ’08 said thought he the symposium was successful in its turnout and moving content.
“I think that the people who left the panel thought it was a positive way for us to talk about the problems that are facing academia in law schools in the way that many voices are marginalized and disempowered,” Adeyemo said.
Just 15 hours after Friday’s forum, a group of about 20 protestors gathered outside of Yale Law School to protest the scheduled appearance of another divisive symposium guest, the former Bush administration official who once said the Geneva Convention was outdated, even though Yoo canceled at the last minute.
One protestor held a sign reading, “Torture is In-YOO-mane,” while another carried a photo of a tortured prisoner. The picketers also carried pamphlets, which protest organizers said were willingly accepted by students and faculty entering the Law School.
“Yoo made the chilling assertion that the President is even empowered to order the torture of the child of someone detained in the so-called ‘war on terrorism,’ including by having his testicles crushed,” the pamphlet read. “Where will this volatile mixture of unchecked power, secrecy and legal sanction lead us as a nation if we don’t find the courage to repudiate it? Yale should do as much, and the presence of John Yoo on its campus brings shame to New Haven.”
Yoo could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
Daniel Freeman LAW ’07, an editor of the Yale Law Journal, said the invitation to Yoo did not represent his endorsement by the Law Journal, but rather an opportunity for discussion.
“I think it is important for him to speak so that people have the ability to rebut him,” Freeman said. “I think that to silence him just because you think he is wrong is not the way to protest his ideas.”
Protestors were not allowed inside Yale Law School, and one protestor said a security guard told her she would have leave the Law School steps but could remain on the sidewalk in front of the building.
New Haven resident and protestor Mark Colville said one of the ways the Law School symposium leaders could have shown their repudiation of Yoo’s message would have been to invite protestors inside. He said Yoo might have validly promoted discourse, but said Yoo’s invitation to Yale could have dire consequences for the country.
“Would we want to invite Nazi sympathizers to the Law School because they have a legal theory? John Yoo is one of the architectures of this attempt to legalize torture, and I think that it’s extremely dangerous for this country,” Colville said. “Inviting him to speak at Yale Law School gives legitimacy to these theories of his.”
In response to criticism that the Law Journal was not responsive to the views of the student body this year, the new 2005-06 Law Journal editors created the position of ombudsman to serve as a public editor for the Law School community. Damian Williams LAW ’07 was recently appointed as the first student to fill the new role, which he said makes him an “independent voice” on the Law Journal.
“The new Journal leadership is committed to healing the wounds exposed by the incident,” Williams said. “The real question isn’t how we avoid a situation like this, but rather how we adapt going forward. I believe the Journal will be more sensitive to its role within the Law School, and will better seek out diverse opinions in its institutional decision making without any hint of tokenism. The process sometimes matters as much as the outcome.”
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