Buckley Program hosts event on free speech after recent Yale Law School controversy
The William F. Buckley Jr. Program held a discussion on Friday with Aaron Sibarium and Robert Shibley to address the recent media coverage of an email sent by a Law School student and the implications of the event on free speech.
Eda Aker and Sarah Cook, Contributing Photographers
Amid national conversations about racism and free speech triggered by Yale Law School’s recent handling of an allegedly-discriminatory email sent by student Trent Colbert LAW ’23, The William F. Buckley Jr. Program hosted a discussion on Friday on how universities balance free speech with discrimination claims from students.
The current controversy surrounding the Law School is based on an email that Colbert circulated in mid-September, which invited students to a “trap house” themed social event hosted by the Federalist Society and the Native American Law Students Association, featuring “Popeye’s chicken and basic-bitch-American-themed snacks.” After nine students submitted complaints to the Law School about how the email and party theme offended them, Law School administrators spoke with Colbert about writing an apology letter to his peers and condemned the email in a message to his class. The Washington Free Beacon published a recording of the meeting and wrote on Oct. 13 about the series of events at the Law School as a controversy related to free speech. Since then, the incident has gained media coverage from the Atlantic, the Washington Post and Slate and has sparked national conversations about how free speech functions at colleges and universities, particularly in relation to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
The William F. Buckley Jr. Program was founded by undergraduate students in 2010 and aims to promote intellectual diversity by creating a forum for conservative speakers and discourse on campus. It invited two speakers involved in the recent Yale Law School media coverage to speak to students on Friday. Aaron Sibarium ’18, who broke the news of Colbert’s story for the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon, and Robert Shibley, the executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a nonpartisan organization that covered the event at the Law School and aims to defend the rights of students and faculty at colleges and universities in America, spoke at the event. Around 100 people attended the Zoom panel.
“There are few places, in my opinion, where freedom of speech is more important than the university campus,” Kevin Xiao ’23, the program’s speakers director and moderator of Friday’s event, told the News. “Especially at Yale, with its own unique history of free expression, the intellectual vitality of the University requires students and faculty to be able to speak without fear of administrative retaliation or coercion for what they say.”
At the event’s start, both Sibarium and Shibley provided their thoughts on Colbert’s email and Yale’s handling of the situation. Shibley began by expressing concern over how, in Colbert’s recording of his meeting with Law School administrators, Director of Diversity and Inclusion Yaseen Eldik mentioned having written apology letters before and how he could help Colbert draft one. Shibley said he was also alarmed by how, during that meeting, Colbert was faced with “veiled threats” that the email could potentially hurt his standing with the bar.
During the event, Shibley said that he was primarily concerned with the message that the Yale administration has sent to the broader Yale community about the consequences they can face for dissenting on controversial political issues. This was true in Colbert’s case, he said, because Colbert’s membership in the conservative Federalist Society was portrayed by Eldik as triggering for some of his peers. According to Shibley, “the underlying political factors” associated with Colbert’s case “reek of McCarthyism.”
“We really should all be alarmed that Yale Law School administrators are willing to bring a student in for multiple meetings where they pressure him to do and say things that he’s not comfortable with,” Shibley said. “Yale’s a private school, but like most private schools, it guarantees free speech to students. It also implies the freedom not to speak up, that itself is an expressive act.”
But in an essay published on Medium, Saja Spearman-Weaver LAW ’23 wrote that while conservatives often claim to value free speech, “when it comes time to hear things they don’t like, they all too often say that their critics are suppressing their speech.”
Spearman-Weaver wrote that one must examine speech that is perceived as racist in order to be antiracist.
“One must be able to freely speak about the way the perceived speech is harmful,” she wrote. “Yet, what we continue to see is people opting out of this process of engagement when they are criticized, and still demanding the most wide-reaching free speech protections for their own views.”
In the conversation, the fact that some students saw Colbert’s membership in the Federalist Society as triggering also prompted a conversation about political censorship. Sibarium told the News that while organizations like the Federalist Society may “subjectively trigger people,” such grievances should not be elevated to the level of Law School administration.
Sibarium also noted an imbalance in incentives that administrators face in situations like the one at the Law School. According to Sibarium, failed responses to harassment claims can lead to legal and social consequences for private universities, but universities can legally censor students because they are not bound by the first amendment. Therefore, Sibarium discussed the need for a balancing force for the “harassment bureaucracy” in the form of a “free speech bureaucracy.”
“There’s not really a core countervailing bureaucracy that listens to people who say their free speech has been violated, and who feel like the DEI office went too far,” Sibarium said in an interview before the event. “And because there’s that kind of imbalance of bureaucratic power within Yale itself, I think that’s why, at least in my view, you do tend to just see overreaction in one direction, and why the deck tends to be kind of stacked against people in … Colbert’s situation.”
Sibarium told the News that this counterbalance could be achieved with inner institutional checks to protect free speech. In this case, Sibarium said this could have manifested in administrators meeting with Colbert while telling him that his free speech would be protected up front, which would have prevented the “whole firestorm,” according to Sibarium.
But A. J. Hudson LAW ’22 told the News that administrators told the students who had made complaints, and several student leaders who had been involved, that Colbert was at no risk of any discipline. The administrators cited and linked the University’s stance on free speech as their rationale for not taking action against Colbert, he said.
The media’s focus on Colbert “popped up out of nowhere,” Hudson said.
“People are writing the article they want to write about free speech, and not about what actually happened,” Hudson said. “This really just isn’t a free speech rights issue. Not at all.”
At the event, Shibley said that the Law School’s response was inappropriate because it created a “chilling effect” in which students such as Colbert think that they are not “tolerated” for “slip-ups” in their university.
In response to a question about increasing concerns about microaggressions, both speakers expressed frustration with the term “microaggression,” which Shibley equated with being “impolite” and characterized as a “rhetorical sort of trick.”
When asked how Yale should have reacted to Colbert’s case, Shibley referenced the University of Chicago’s system with dealing with similar cases. The University of Chicago administration, he said, has decided not to get involved in cases relating to “this kind of conflict,” which Shibley sees as ideal because in the real world there is no such system to report offensive words or actions.
Shibley and Sibarium both expressed additional concern that, in his meeting with administrators, Colbert was told that the reaction to his email would be influenced by the fact that Colbert is Indigenous. From this, Shibley and Sibarium, who are both white, discussed how they believe there is unjustified preferential treatment towards people of color, which violates the idea of equal justice under the law.
In an email to the News, Law School spokesperson Debra Kroszner affirmed the University’s commitment to free speech. She wrote that the University and the Law School “have strong free speech protections” and that students aren’t “investigated or sanctioned for protected speech.”
“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,” Kroszner wrote.
Sibarium advised students to keep records of meetings and emails in order to have proof should they be accused of harassment. Before the meeting, he told the News that while he does not necessarily encourage “a norm where we record private conversations,” keeping records of emails and screenshots is helpful to protect free speech.
“On the individual level, don’t legitimize cancel culture mobs and make sure that you do all in your power within the reasonable ethical limits to protect yourself if you really are the target of a witch hunt,” Sibarium told the News.
The event can be accessed on the Buckley Program’s YouTube channel.