The notion that a university does not have the right to defend its constitutional freedoms by filing a lawsuit against the government is absurd, but nevertheless, it is an idea that we have been hearing all too frequently. Echoing the sentiments held by critics of Yale’s suit against the Department of Defense to protect their right to exclude the Judge Advocate General’s Corps from recruiting at the Law School, the editors of Light and Truth wrote, “Although Yale is a private institution the fact that it receives money from the government means that it must be willing to accommodate the demands of the state if it wants to keep its funding.” In another piece in FrontPage Magazine, Joseph Sabia writes that rather than settling the matter in a courtroom, President Levin simply needs to surrender his “idiotic nondiscrimination policy” and forego federal funding or comply with the Solomon Amendment.
Sabia and the editors of Light and Truth present us with an incredibly frightening idea. Their simplistic view of a university’s role as a passive recipient of government funding suggests that they, along with other critics of the plaintiff’s stance, choose to ignore the long history of universities defending their political principles in a legal setting.
From the pivotal Bakke case that defended the University of California’s right to employ affirmative action in its admission policies to the appeals of various universities to Title IX legislation, educational institutions have long established their ability to bring about change that affects not only their campuses but national legal precedent. That the defendant in the current legal battle is the government, which funds research at Yale, is irrelevant in light of the University’s larger responsibility as an institute of higher education to encourage its members to be politically engaged.
Just like the law students who filed an amicus brief in the affirmative action case before the Supreme Court this past summer, professors at the Law School are now faced with the moral responsibility of challenging the government restrictions that they consider unjust. And they certainly chose the moral high ground in assuming that responsibility.
The fact is that universities cannot and should not ever be politically neutral settings. Nor should the University simply abide by the opinion of the government because it receives government funding. According to that logic, all citizens, as recipients of federal services, should never challenge the government when they feel it is being unduly restrictive. That idea is tyrannical.
Of all universities, Yale should certainly know its potential to take moral stands that communicate powerful messages to the government. In 1970, Yale conveyed the message that it would not stand for the imposition of what it believed to be misguided military activity on campus when faculty members voted to revoke credit for ROTC courses. The history of activism at Yale extends back even farther to World War I, when in defense of U.S. military policy, Yale became a military camp and nearly the entire student body enrolled in the newly-created ROTC training course.
The current lawsuit is only a continuation of a long history of Yale students appreciating the significance of defending their political principles. More than that, the case is significant for its placement of the ongoing debate between universities and government in the courtroom. As students, we are witnessing an example of constructive citizenship. Law professors have a responsibility to teach in the lecture hall and the seminar room, but as they train a crop of new leaders, they also have the responsibility to teach by example. By adhering to their political principles, the professors behind the current suit are role models for how we should become productive and engaged citizens.
Far from being legally flawed, the shift of the University’s site of activism from Beinecke Plaza rallies to the Supreme Court is commendable, and monumental. To suggest that the political role of the University is restricted to protests and rallies, as Jamie Kirchick states in his column (“Anti-JAG policy quashes law students’ free speech rights,” 10/15), is extremely naive. Rallies may serve as opportunities to convey a message of dissent; trials, however, hold the potential to set precedent and create substantive change. By moving the debate from the corner of York and Wall streets to Washington, the law professors are embracing a form of activism in which they are not only political dissenters, but political actors who are capable of implementing progressive change.
Critics of the JAG lawsuit want to ignore the fact that universities are inherently political in nature, and their attempt is in vain. The legal action is a commendable example of the need to embrace rather than escape from a university’s essential responsibility to defend its beliefs. Rather than surrendering its political principles as a result of government blackmail, the University, as it has done before, needs to stand behind its politics and serve as an example for both its students and the federal government. The Law School’s response to JAG is a powerful example of the potential and necessity for campus activism to extend beyond the ivory tower.
Benita Singh is a senior in Branford College.