On Wednesday, Zulfiqar Mannan ’20 and Casey Odesser ’20 protested in Akhil Amar’s undergraduate Constitutional Law class. They took to the lecture stage and distributed a pamphlet alleging that Amar promotes “alt-right interpretations of the U.S. Constitution.”
As a law student, I have read, listened to and debated Professor Amar. There is not a scintilla of evidence to support these charges. At its core, Amar’s constitutional vision undermines “alt-right” white nationalism. Amar centers the importance of birth equality in the American constitutional project. The son of Indian immigrants, he contends that the Constitution should be interpreted to guarantee free and equal citizenship to all Americans. If Amar is alt-right, so are Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Protesting a professor on spurious grounds erodes the core values of any vibrant academic institution. I say this as a gay, liberal student who has attended protests for climate action and racial justice since matriculating at Yale. Amar’s work is meticulous and often brilliant; it reflects a lifetime of profound and passionate study of the Constitution. To denounce his views as alt-right without thoughtful engagement is pernicious to a culture of free inquiry and free thought.
I encourage Mannan and Odesser to take Amar’s classes or at least attend his office hours. I am sure Amar would be open to discussion; after all, he invited the students to give a presentation during his class. In college and graduate school, I intentionally sought to take classes taught by professors with whom I disagreed and found them to be some of my most edifying educational experiences, particularly from the perspective of an activist interested in social change. I don’t agree with all of Amar’s views. Because Amar is an iconoclastic thinker and prolific writer, I doubt anybody in the academy shares all his views. We should celebrate, not recoil from, learning from people with whom we have differences and disagreements. Scholarship and our democracy depend on it.
In fact, I anticipate Mannan and Odesser would find that they agree with Amar on many important topics. Unlike many scholars who minimize the centrality of slavery to the Constitution’s drafting, Amar forthrightly condemns the “radical vice of Article I” of “proslavery malapportionment” as “an expanding rot at the base of America’s system of representation.” He’s written movingly about the power of anti-gay laws to imprison and deny dignity to LGBTQ people, including some of his closest friends, and has worked to advance queer rights. He devoted an entire chapter of one his books to making a case for “America’s feminist constitution.”
Students should generally be commended for protesting — a reflection of America’s First Amendment tradition, which incidentally Amar knows quite a bit about. But I also question the opportunity cost of this protest. As President Trump degrades democratic norms, the climate crisis destroys communities and America enters a second Gilded Age of extreme wealth inequality, I’d encourage students to keep protesting — just to choose different targets.
Duncan Hosie LAW’21 is a second-year student at Yale Law School. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .