Audrey Steinkamp

Zulfiqar Mannan ’20 — who staged a demonstration against the Director of the World Fellows Program Emma Sky earlier this month — has now chosen Sterling Professor of law Akhil Amar as the protest’s next potential subject, prompting further doubts and criticisms about the project’s ethics and legitimacy.

On Nov. 5, Mannan and four other Yale College students chanted, sang and stomped outside of Sky’s “Middle East Politics” class, distributing brochures calling the professor a war criminal. Mannan is staging a string of protests called “Do You Trust Your Educator?” as a part of “Paradise Sought,” a larger human rights capstone project. The protestor is facing a disciplinary case from the Yale College Executive Committee for their conduct on the day of the demonstration against Sky. Mannan works as a staff writer for the Yale Daily News.

On Nov. 18, Mannan announced on Facebook that Amar’s popular “Constitutional Law” class could be the next site of their performance. But the project is on hiatus and there is no set date for the next demonstration, Mannan said. In a draft pamphlet summarizing the condemnation of Amar, Mannan argued that the Sterling Professor legitimized “Alt-Right interpretations of the U.S. Constitution” and played a critical role in the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 last year.

“I arrived at Yale on my 18th birthday and this school has been my home ever since—for more than forty years,” Amar said. “It is an honor to teach Yale undergraduates and I do so as a gift to Yale College, above and beyond my full teaching load at Yale Law School. My field, constitutional law, implicates many controversial topics, and I try to teach students to think for themselves, using proper tools of constitutional analysis. I welcome student questions and criticisms, and I invite any undergraduate, whether enrolled in my class or not, to visit me during office hours or to join my weekly Wednesday lunches with
students.”

In an email to the News, Dean of the Yale Law School Heather Gerken also defended her colleague.

“Professor Akhil Amar is a brilliant scholar who has taught a generation of Yale students,” Gerken said. “I count myself lucky to be his colleague. While we will always stand behind the right of students to protest, we must also protect the right of members of our community to teach and to learn. Disrupting a class is fundamentally at odds with the values of a university.”

Mannan’s controversial demonstration comes amid conversations about the role of protests on university campuses and the extent to which speech — even disruptive ones — should be permitted.

Mannan’s Nov. 5 protest against Sky faced fierce backlash from students in the professor’s class. In an email to the protestor obtained by the News, one student said “the class convened and agreed that they ‘would like to receive a written apology from Zulfi for the sake of transparency.’”

“Your instructor was informed a week prior and reached out for feedback,” Mannan said in an apology that was meant to be read aloud to the class by a peer. “I found myself in a deeply alienating, heartbreaking and unfortunate circumstance outside your class on November 5th. I am sorry if my resulting actions were perceived as threatening or violent. They were not and were not intended as such ever.”

In an email to the News, Sky said “Yale should remain vehemently committed” to the most basic values of a university, which she said allows students and faculty members to exchange ideas freely and without undue imposition.

Since the Nov. 5 protest, faculty members associated with the project quickly distanced themselves from Mannan’s conduct.

In an email to faculty members associated with human rights research at the law school and fellow students in the Human Rights Program, professor James Silk — who is the director of the Law School’s Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights — clarified that he and Mannan’s project advisor Paul Linden-Retek played no role in carrying out the protest against Sky.

“[Mannan’s] project aims not only to include a research paper on forms of protest, but also to examine and reflect on his own experiences in designing and carrying out protest,” Silk wrote in that email. “The project and our supervision does not extend to Zulfi’s design and carrying out of protest. These are activities he has chosen to pursue with his friends and colleagues in Paradise Sought. While we recognize and defend Zulfi’s right to freedom of expression, neither we nor the Human Rights Program nor the capstone seminar have participated in the design of the protest or the protest and don’t endorse it or its
message.”

Silk added that Mannan’s protest against Sky raised a number of concerns, including ethical ones. Silk and Linden-Retek brought them to the demonstrator’s attention and urged Mannan to consider carefully and honestly the consequences of the actions, the email said.

Among other things, Silk said that he shared with Mannan his strong belief “that a fundamental principle of action in support of human rights or justice or equality is humility.”

“We should all be wary of putting ourselves in the position of judging others or, at least, wary of being confident that the consequences of our judgments and, particularly, making those judgments public or taking action based on them, are just,” Silk said in the email. “If dialogue is the stated goal of a protest, it needs to offer more than accusation; it needs to provide assurance of genuine give and take, an openness to being affected by the dialogue, a refusal to pre-judge.”

According to Morse Head of College Catherine Panter-Brick, Mannan received a Creative and Performing Arts Award from the residential college for a project called “101 Ways To Change The World Today.” That funding has not been drawn from the project, Panter-Brick said. But because Yale’s undergraduate policy prohibits the disruption of classroom instruction, CPA funding cannot be used for such a purpose, she wrote in an email to the News.

Mannan said their capstone project will culminate in a visual art exhibition and a paper about experimental protest at Yale. According to Mannan, the demonstrations in Sky’s classes — and those still to come — are part of their research, and are a “tiny, tiny” part of Paradise Sought.

The Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights was started in 1989.

 

 

Matt Kristoffersen | matthew.kristoffersen@yale.edu