Email from Yale Law student sparks national discussion on racism and free speech
A month after a student sent an email that some saw as racially insensitive, a wide discussion has started about racism, conservatism and free speech at Yale Law School.
Madelyn Kumar, Contributing Photographer
The Yale Law School has been thrust into the national spotlight after a student sent what some saw as a racially charged email to a student group, prompting a broad conversation on racism and free speech at the school.
Trent Colbert LAW ’23, a member of the Native American Law Students Association and the Federalist Society, sent the email on Sept. 15 to the NALSA listserv to announce a social event between the two groups. Moments later, the email was shared with a GroupMe chat for Law School students in the class of 2023, resulting in extensive discourse in the chat over student concerns about the email and explanations of how its rhetoric could be understood as racially and misogynistically charged. After receiving multiple complaints about the email, two Law School administrators met with Colbert, urging him to send a class-wide apology to his peers and explaining that his reputation could be negatively affected by the situation, according to a public recording of the meeting.
The email has since gained national attention from multiple news outlets. On Monday, Dean of Yale Law School Heather Gerken sent a community-wide email addressing the situation and saying that she will “take any steps necessary” to ensure that the Law School lives up to its values of free speech while still creating an inclusive environment for all students.
“The vigorous exchange of ideas is the lifeblood of this Law School,” Gerken wrote in the email. “Protecting free speech is a core value of any academic institution; so too is cultivating an environment of respect and inclusion. These two values are mutually reinforcing and sit at the heart of an intellectual community like ours.”
Gerken wrote that she has tapped Deputy Dean Ian Ayres to assess the situation. With information beyond the “partial facts reported out in a charged media environment,” she would decide how to ensure the institution “lives up to its values,” Gerken wrote. Ayres did not respond to a request for comment.
Colbert’s email has spread widely since it was initially sent on Sept. 15.
“This Friday at 7:30, we will be christening our very own (soon to be) world-renowned NALSA Trap House … by throwing a Constitution Day Bash in collaboration with FedSoc,” the email said. “Planned attractions include Popeye’s chicken, basic-bitch-American-themed snacks (like apple pie, etc.), a cocktail station, assorted hard and soft beverages, and (most importantly) the opportunity to attend the NALSA Trap House’s inaugural mixer!”
The email was signed by Colbert. He told the News this week that “at the time, there was no review process for emails sent to the NALSA listserv.”
Some students immediately took issue with Colbert’s chosen language, pointing out that “trap house” — which is slang for a place to sell drugs — has negative racial connotations. A Sept. 16 poll in the Law School class of 2023 GroupMe, which was obtained and reviewed by the News, found that out of 87 respondents, 49 found the use of the “trap house” theme to be offensive, seven did not find it offensive, and the remaining 31 did not know or understand the definition of trap house.
“[My family is] from Oakland, California, from the Bay Area, from these places that you could call trap houses,” Marina Edwards LAW ’23, president of Yale Black Law Students Association, told the News. “I have friends that are in jail for selling drugs for being overly criminalized, right, so for me it was uncomfortable because it was presented as the juvenile mockery thing that it’s like I know people in jail for.”
Colbert told the News that he stands by his language, citing its “wide” usage in popular culture.
Edwards added that she also found Colbert’s email offensive because the event was hosted by the Federalist Society, which she said “is historically known for supporting anti-Black and anti-woman rhetoric.” The Federalist Society is a national organization of conservatives and libertarians that is committed to preserving freedom, according to the group’s website.
NALSA declined to provide comment for this article. Federalist Society president Zachary Austin LAW ’22 said that he is discussing the incident and response with Law School administrators, but declined to provide further comment.
On Sept. 16, the day after the email was sent, Law School Associate Dean Ellen Cosgrove and Diversity Director Yaseen Eldik met with Colbert after receiving nine complaints from law students about the email. In the meeting, Eldik explained the potentially offensive nature of the language Colbert included in his email — including a “fried chicken reference,” which has been “used to undermine arguments that structural and systemic racism has contributed to racial health disparities in the U.S.” — and suggested that Colbert apologize to his peers. They drafted up an apology letter that Colbert could send.
A 23-minute voice recording and another one-minute voice recording of a Sept. 17 meeting are available online. The recordings have prompted widespread criticism in the media that Law School administrators impeded Colbert’s right to free speech by pressuring him to apologize to the involved parties and by suggesting that it could affect his reputation in the legal community.
Sterling Professor of sociology Nicholas Christakis wrote on Twitter that “a dean at Yale Law School drafted (unasked) an apology note for a student to sign and tried to pressure him into doing so. This is the sort of act we roundly condemn when the police or totalitarian governments engage in variants of it.”
Christakis did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
On Sept. 17, after a second meeting with Colbert, Cosgrove and Eldik emailed the second-year class. An “invitation was recently circulated containing pejorative and racist language,” the administrators’ email reads. “We condemn this in the strongest possible terms [and] are working on addressing this.”
Still, since the meetings, Yale Law School has affirmed its commitment to free speech on campus.
“Yale University and Yale Law School have strong free speech protections, and no student is investigated or sanctioned for protected speech,” Law School spokesperson Debra Kroszner wrote in an email to the News. “When the Law School receives complaints about offensive communications, the Dean of Students routinely tries to help students talk to one another and resolve their disagreements within the community.”
“At no time was any disciplinary investigation launched or disciplinary action taken in this matter,” Kroszner continued. “While any person may report concerns about a lawyers’ character and fitness to the bar, the Law School has a longstanding policy of reporting only formal disciplinary action to the Bar Association. Any media reporting to the contrary is false.”
On Sept. 17, Colbert wrote a message in the class of 2023 GroupMe asking any student who was “hurt” by his email and who “would like to talk” to speak with him individually, inviting them to directly message him.
Board member of the Black Law Students Association Saja Spearman-Weaver LAW ’23 told the News that she reached out to Colbert individually via text, email and GroupMe and did not receive a response until this past Friday — over three weeks later. But Colbert said that he responded to Spearman-Weaver after she followed up her initial message.
“I do think that there’s an atmosphere at Yale Law School where people are constantly under threat of denunciation by more progressive student activist types for one reason or another,” Colbert wrote in an email to the News. “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen it happen in the GroupMe, although this case was special because it escalated to administrative involvement. I think that the culture of public shaming and demanding apologies is unhealthy and encourages people’s worst tendencies. People are less interested in discussion than domination, which is worrisome, considering the importance of this institution.”
The Law School controversy gained significant national attention following an Oct. 13 article in the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative political journalism website, which wrote that Law School administrators pressured Colbert to apologize to his peers. The Free Beacon simultaneously published recordings of the meeting between Colbert, Cosgrove and Eldik.
The articles were written by Aaron Sibarium ’18, who was an opinion editor on the Yale Daily News managing board of 2017. Sibarium told the News that he received an outside tip about the controversy, and that he reached out to Colbert for his article at the end of September.
The Free Beacon articles quickly gained traction. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) tweeted about the situation, calling it “insanity.” Slate published its own article on Oct. 13 titled “Yale Law School’s Free Speech Blunder Bolsters the Federalist Society’s Victim Mentality.” The next day, the Washington Post published an opinion piece written by Ruth Marcus ’79, who served as University editor on the Yale Daily News managing board of 1979. Her opinion piece starts off with the words “Maoist reeducation camps have nothing on Yale Law School.”
“This [issue] is about Yale administrators engaging in ideological discrimination, admitting to racial bias, and attempting to weaponize the very integrity of the legal profession itself for their own ends,” Colbert wrote in an email to the News. “It’s terrifying to see our nation’s premier law school behaving this way and it makes me worry about the future of law in this country if it continues to do so.”
Students told the News that the controversy on campus is unrelated to how Law School administrators handled the situation.
Liz Jacob LAW ’23 said that the media had constructed a “narrative of victimhood that privileges the reputation of the Federalist Society and the veneer of free speech over the emotional and physical well-being of students and administrators of color.”
A. J. Hudson LAW ’22, who had conducted the GroupMe poll about the initial email, said that the media attention on Colbert “popped up out of nowhere” a month after the initial issue. He said that he feels the opinion pieces “barely match reality.”
“People are writing the article they want to write about free speech, and not about what actually happened,” Hudson said. “On Sept. 24, the administration told the students who had made complaints, and several student leaders who had been involved, that Trent was at no risk of any discipline. They literally cited and linked the University’s own strong stance on free speech as the reason why they could take no action against Trent. This really just isn’t a free speech rights issue. Not at all.”
Andrew Koppelman LAW ’81 GRD ’91, a professor of law and political science at Northwestern University, wrote in an opinion piece that the situation represented an error in carrying out work around diversity and inclusion. Koppelman said Law School administrators should have made clear to Colbert that his email did not qualify as discrimination or harassment, and that he was not facing sanctions.
“Free speech means protection, not only from punishment, but also from official harassment for one’s speech,” Koppelman wrote. “Members of a university need to work together peacefully even when they find one another’s deepest convictions wrong or offensive.
Spearman-Weaver and Edwards also spoke to the importance of continued dialogue. Spearman-Weaver said that Yale Law School students are “losing an opportunity to advance” if they do not have nuanced conversations within their community. Edwards emphasized that law students should “engage in critical dialogue.” The issue arises, she said, when this dialogue does not occur.
“I think that [the Federalist Society is] driving a narrative where being, quote unquote, targeted for your membership in a voluntary political organization is somehow equivalent to being targeted for membership that one cannot choose in a racial affinity group,” Spearman-Weaver said.
The Federalist Society was founded in 1982 by a group of students from the Yale Law School, the Harvard Law School and the University of Chicago Law School.
Correction, 10/20, this story has been corrected to reflect the proper abbreviation for Arkansas.