The Law School will hold a forum next week to address deep divisions in the school surrounding the Yale Law Journal’s decision to print an article later this month by law prodigy Kiwi Camara, who, it was discovered, repeatedly referred to black individuals as “nig” and “nigs” in class notes he posted online as a Harvard Law School student.
Yale Law Journal Editor-in-Chief Curtis Mahoney LAW ’06 said that when the editorial board became aware of Camara’s past actions last semester, members deliberated with faculty and students before erring on the side of academic freedom by deciding to continue with plans to run his article in the Journal’s March special symposium edition and not to withdraw an invitation for Camara to visit Yale with other Journal contributors March 24.
Although some law students and professors said they support the Law Journal’s decision on the basis of academic freedom of expression, others said they reject the Journal’s publication of Camara’s work, arguing that Camara — who graduated from Harvard Law School in 2002 at age 19, the youngest graduate in the institution’s history — is a bigot whose past actions overshadow his legal expertise.
Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh sent an e-mail to the law school community last month in which he advocated the condemnation of Camara’s speech “categorically and with conviction” but called for a larger forum — currently scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m. in the Law School auditorium — to discuss whether or not speech and the speaker can be separated.
“The Journal is an autonomous student organization, which is entitled to make this decision,” Koh wrote. “Yet everyone agrees that acceptance of this individual’s piece for publication and the invitation to him to come to our school has caused deep pain and controversy within our community. Hate speech and racist speech are offenses not just to its direct targets, but to the spirit of equality and liberty that animates the legal academy.”
The law community became aware of the issue last semester, when an anonymous letter describing what Camara had written more than four years ago was e-mailed to Law Journal editors and posted to the Law School’s bulletin. Editors said their decision would not be as controversial if Camara’s submission were being printed in one of the Journal’s regular issues, in which editors choose pieces for publication before learning the identity of contributing authors.
Camara, who has apologized to Yale students several times but in an interview with the Harvard Law School Record refused to rule out the possibility that he will use racial slurs in the future, said he has become accustomed to negative attention. The initial posting of the notes — in which he wrote, for example, “Nigs buy land with no nig covenant” to describe a Supreme Court case — sparked protests at Harvard Law School and received national publicity.
But Camara said he believes the merit of his current work should outweigh consideration of his past speech and that he welcomes Koh’s forum as a reasonable response to the controversy.
“I agree that my comment in the notes ought to be condemned, but it’s very important for academic journals to be in the business of selecting work solely on the basis of the merit of the work submitted and not on the basis of the character of its author,” he said. “[Though] it would be perfectly fine to decline to invite Hitler to an event, notwithstanding a fact that he has written a smashing article about corporate law.”
Law professor Robert Post, a leading expert on First Amendment issues, said that while the situation presents complicated considerations, he would have made the same decision as the Journal’s editors.
“Of course people should be careful about what they say, because words can harm,” Post said. “But should that person have a scarlet letter attached to them for the rest of their lives? … I would go ahead and publish it. In my view, the Yale Law Journal is not there to give its approval to authors, but to publish the best work.”
Still, some law students said the Yale Law Journal — which is widely considered to be among the top legal journals nationwide — should not publish the article later this month. In an e-mail sent to the Law School community that was obtained by the News, Dennis Clare LAW ’06 compared Camara’s words to the lynchings of black Americans throughout history and attached several photographs.
Clare declined to comment for this story.
Angela Thompson LAW ’07 said she thinks the publication of Camara’s work is an implicit endorsement of his character.
“I am unaware of any principle of academic freedom that gives anyone the right to refer to me as a ‘nigger,’ and if such a principle does exist, I am not sure where I am to find a place within the academic community as an African-American woman,” she said. “His statement to the Yale Law School community was more of a justification than an apology. He is unwilling to even admit that his statement could be construed as labeling him a racist.”
Ngozi Ndulue LAW ’07 said that regardless of the situation’s outcome, she thinks it was unfortunate that Camara was invited to the Law School in the first place, because he does not deserve the attention he has been receiving.
But Davon Collins LAW ’07 said the issue is moot now that Camara has apologized. Collins said many of the students voicing opposition to Camara’s visit are hypocritical.
“This sort of rancor is especially ironic, as it seems to be coming from students often sympathetic to the plight of ex-felons who cannot vote and have difficulty reentering society,” he said.
Sean Strasburg LAW ’08 said he believes that the solution should prioritize free speech above all.
“This made me feel that we’re a long way away from having any serious reconciliation about the issues if a single phrase in a student outline can uncover such venom,” he said. “For me, it seems like the free speech value outweighs the need for the University to make clear that it disproves of its speech, because that should be clear from the get go.”
A group of students who have organized to protest Camara are planning an alternative event on racism that will coincide with Camara’s speech on March 24, Mickey Martinez LAW ’07 said.
Mahoney said he and other Yale Law Journal editors believe Camara’s past speech deserves condemnation, and that although they stand by their decision to print his article on its merit, some plan to protest when he visits later this month.
“What Camara did while he was at Harvard was beyond reprehensible and very hurtful,” Mahoney said. “It’s a better response for a community that a person who engages in this kind of behavior is not going to have a warm welcome in the Yale Law School. That response is ultimately more effective and in the best traditions of our school.”
Koh will moderate Monday’s forum, which will feature a panel of speakers including Mahoney and Yale law professors such as Ronald Sullivan and William Eskridge Jr.