Yale Law students protest anti-LGBTQ speaker, armed police presence triggers backlash
A Thursday Federalist Society event featuring a controversial conservative speaker sparked protest at the Law School.
Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
Read our most recent coverage on the event here.
At a Thursday event at the Yale Law School, more than 120 students gathered to protest Kristen Waggoner, a controversial anti-LGBTQ speaker invited by the Federalist Society. At least four armed police were called to respond to the protest.
Waggoner was invited by the Federalist Society, alongside Monica Miller, an associate at the American Humanist Association, to discuss civil rights litigation in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski. However, Waggoner’s role as the general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, generated a large student protest to which police were called. Over 400 law students — more than half of the current Law School student body — have signed an open letter condemning the presence of armed police at a student protest at the Federalist Society meeting. In the open letter, the students pointed in particular to the history of anti-LGBTQ actions taken by the group.
“Understandably, a large swath of [Yale Law School] students felt that [the Federalist Society’s] decision to lend legitimacy to this hate group by inviting its general counsel to speak at [Yale Law School] profoundly undermined our community’s values of equity and inclusivity at a time when LGBTQ youth are actively under attack in Texas, Florida, and other states,” the open letter reads. “… Even with all of the privilege afforded to us at YLS, the decision to allow police officers in as a response to the protest put YLS’ queer student body at risk of harm.”
The letter was primarily concerned with the presence of armed police at the protest, but additionally condemned law professor Kate Stith, who moderated the event and told the protesters to “grow up.” The letter, which was initially submitted to Law School administrators with over 130 signatures and has since more than tripled in signatories, notes that signatories are “a coalition of queer students and allies deeply concerned with the presence of armed police at a peaceful protest of law students.”
At the Thursday event, around 160 students were present, 120 of whom were protesting the event, according to multiple attendees. As the speakers were being introduced by a Federalist Society member, student protesters stood up in unison, some with signs and some with clothing that expressed their support of the LGBT community, according to Rachel Perler LAW ’22 — and confirmed by eight other students. Students left one by one as Stith continued to introduce Waggoner, but a handful of protestors remained in the room.
As Stith began to read aloud the University’s free speech policy, multiple protesters responded that “this protest is free speech.” Stith continued on to say “come on, grow up,” and was met with a response of “will those trans kids grow up?” Around half of the people in the room left after the comment from Stith, and more continued to leave as the event continued. Some protestors went on to occupy the hallway outside.
Stith declined to comment on the protest.
When the Q&A portion of the event began, protesters asked questions of Waggoner.
“What’s the price of a dead trans kid?” one student asked Waggoner.
“I felt like Waggoner did not make any good-faith effort to engage with questions from LGBT students who came to ask her questions about her organization’s work,” Perler told the News. “She referred to the questions as talking points, and pretty much refused to engage in any way.”
Waggoner condemned the students’ behavior in an email to the News.
“Future lawyers should have the critical thinking skills, intellectual curiosity, humility, and maturity to engage with ideas and legal principles that they may disagree with,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, some students who attended the Federalist Society event refused to allow others to speak and acted in an aggressive and hostile manner towards me, Professor Kate Stith, and Monica Miller from the American Humanist Association.”
Six protesters all confirmed that armed police officers were present at the event. It is unclear who called them or whether they were part of the Yale Police Department or the New Haven Police Department. Elaine Emmerich LAW ’22, a protester, told the News that the police officers told students to be quiet, and rumors swirled that arrests might occur.
Zack Austin LAW ’22, the president of Yale’s chapter of the Federalist Society, said that the Federalist Society was not responsible for the police presence at the protest. By his account, four armed, uniformed police officers gathered to escort the speakers into an awaiting squad car to take them to a lunch following the event.
The protesters’ letter to the Law School administration noted that there is still no clear answer as to why or how the police ended up at the protest.
“Students have been told conflicting things by YLS administration about whether the decision to call armed officers was dictated by YLS or university policy—if a policy exists to call the police during student protests, a copy of that policy should be made public,” the letter read.
The Yale Law School spokesperson Debra Krozner was unable to immediately provide clarification on how police ended up at the protest or who the police were, but did tell the News that the Law School’s actions at Thursday’s event were in line with the University’s policies.
“The Law School follows the University’s free speech policy and procedures,” Krozner told the News. “The Law School administration plans to hold a meeting with student representatives to go over protest and free speech protocols.”
Waggoner’s presence on campus and the response from faculty and security have drawn strong criticism from some law students. But Austin defended the Federalist Society’s decision to invite Waggoner, writing to the News that they “hosted this event to show two litigators working on the same case across some of the deepest divides in American political and religious life to advance free speech rights.”
Several student protesters characterized the armed response as disproportionate, given what they viewed to be the peaceful and non-disruptive nature of the protest. Sources with the Federalist Society and close to the speakers disputed this, saying that the protest, although peaceful, disrupted the event.
“I was horrified when I first heard that [the Federalist Society] had invited [Alliance Defending Freedom] ADF to campus,” Alex Johnson LAW ’24 told the News. “ADF has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and for good reason: their entire mission is to devalue queer lives. To provide them a platform for that mission, especially under the disingenuous guise of what it means to ‘litigate civil rights,’ is disgraceful, and I hope — although I doubt — FedSoc has learned that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated in silence.”
Other students condemned the Law School faculty for its lack of respect for the rights of students to exercise free speech through protest.
“I think that it is troubling when Yale Law School, which presents itself as the nation’s top law school, doesn’t recognize that protest is a valid political expression and also protected speech,” Perler said. “[It’s] just ironic that students who showed up to engage in free speech, either by asking questions or by protesting the event, were faced with armed police.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ADF has a history of anti-LGBTQ bigotry, which includes defending the state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad and has argued that LGBTQ people are more likely to engage in pedophilia and claims that a “homosexual agenda” will destroy Christianity and society.
“ADF also works to develop “religious liberty” legislation and case law that will allow the denial of goods and services to LGBTQ people on the basis of religion,” the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote in their report on the ADF. “Since the election of President Trump, ADF has become one of the most influential groups informing the administration’s attack on LGBTQ rights.”
Waggoner responded to the News that the Southern Poverty Law Center “has been exposed for decades by credible voices on the left and the right as a scam,” and their criticism was not valid.
Several years ago, the Yale Law School received backlash from Senator Ted Cruz on its policy to not provide summer public interest fellowships at the ADF. This decision by the Law School was made because of its long-standing nondiscrimination policy.
This is not the first time this school year that the Federalist Society has faced controversy. In September, a member of the group sent a school-wide email inviting students to a “trap house” themed party. The email, as well as student reactions and Law School administrators’ dealings with the Federalist Society member, received national attention.
The American Humanist Association, the organization with which the other speaker was associated, is a non-profit organization founded in 1941 that provides legal assistance to defend the constitutional rights of secular and religious minorities in the United States.
Correction, March 15:This article has been updated to include comment from Waggoner, as well as to note that the protesters’ claims that their protest was non-disruptive has been disputed.