Moderator denounces Law School protesters in faculty-wide memo
Event moderator Kate Stith argued the protesters violated Yale’s free speech policies, as administrators held their first meeting to discuss the issue with student representatives.
Law professor Kate Stith, who moderated the March 10 panel that was disrupted by student protesters, sent tenured law faculty a blistering memorandum on Thursday arguing that the students had violated Yale’s free speech policy and should be educated and potentially sanctioned.
Stith’s letter came the same day the Graduate and Professional Student Senate met and discussed the protest. There, attendees were informed that students would meet with representatives from the office of University-wide administrators.
The March 10 panel, hosted by the Yale chapter of the Federalist Society, featured two speakers on opposite ends of the political spectrum who spoke of their support for freedom of speech. Monica Miller, senior counsel for the progressive American Humanist Association, and Kristen Waggoner, general counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, both supported a recent civil liberties case which Waggoner had argued and won before the Supreme Court.
But about 120 student protesters took issue with Waggoner’s presence on the panel, arguing that the organization she works for aims to limit LGBTQ rights in the name of religious liberty. At the event, Miller said that her organization views ADF as a “hate group,” but emphasized the importance of proper discourse and noted that the job of a lawyer is to represent their client, and she argued a case that hinged on the results of Waggoner’s.
But audio of the panel shows that protests drowned out much of Miller’s statement. At the event, protesters stood and challenged Stith as she introduced the panelists. They left the room after Stith read aloud the University’s free speech policy, but continued to loudly make noise in the hallway. Throughout the event, students can be heard chanting, cheering, stomping and yelling outside the lecture hall, muffling, if not all but drowning out, the sounds of the speakers. At times, Stith wrote, the speakers ceased talking or listening due to the disruption.
“Any formal determination that the March protest at Yale Law School did not violate Yale’s policy on Free Expression would set a terrible precedent at Yale and elsewhere,” Stith wrote. “There is no doubt that the event in Room 127 was significantly disrupted.”
According to Zack Austin ’17 LAW ’22, president of the Yale Federalist society, the professor teaching across the hall asked students to “yell” to be heard over the din. Stith’s letter notes that protesters also disrupted another course and forced a faculty meeting to switch to a Zoom-based format. Audio of the panel confirms that the decibel level made it difficult to hear the speakers.
More than two weeks later, Dean of the Yale Law School Heather Gerken sent a strongly worded letter claiming the protesters engaged in “unacceptable” behavior, but that they did not violate Yale’s free speech policy. Three days later, Stith sent her memo outlining how the protesters had violated Yale’s free speech policy. The policy not only prohibits shutting down an event, but also “disrupting” one, including interfering with a speaker’s ability to be heard and the audience’s ability to listen.
But the protesters have continued to question the Law School’s focus on the students’ disruption rather than the decision to invite Waggoner to speak.
“The First Amendment is complicated and it protects both sides of an argument,” AJ Hudson LAW ’23 said in an interview early last week. “But it seems like it’s only ever used as a tool to tell students of color, queer students, or female students to shut up.”
Stith argued that protesters should be educated about the importance of free expression on university campuses.
“As a former prosecutor, I know well that not every violation has to be an occasion for sanctions,” Stith wrote. “In my judgment we should use this moment as an opportunity to educate our students about the core importance of free expression to our academic mission—and to make clear, as Dean Gerken has forcefully written, this can never happen again.”
In Gerken’s letter, the dean wrote that the administration would be in “serious discussion” with students about policies and norms throughout the rest of the semester.
Following substantial back-and-forth about the content of the meetings and who could attend, the Law School decided to hold a preliminary meeting with Dean of Student Affairs Ellen Cosgrove and YLS’ elected student representatives.
According to a string of emails obtained by the News between student representatives and Cosgrove, there were no plans to discuss free speech at the meetings as of last week.
“Just confirming my understanding of the agenda of the meeting: 1. The presence of police at the protests. 2. The decision to have armed police rather than unarmed security. 3. The circumstances around the presence of plain clothed officers in the law school buildings,” Cosgrove wrote in a March 26 email to student representatives. “The University’s free speech policy is a University policy and discussions about that would be appropriately directed to the Graduate and Professional Student Senate.”
However, plans for the meeting appear to have shifted in the interceding days, as Law School spokesperson Debra Kroszner said that the meeting “will cover a wide range of topics related to protests, rallies and University protocols.”
All student representatives declined to comment on the meeting, where they will decide future meeting agendas and who can attend.
On Thursday, the Graduate and Professional Student Senate met and discussed, among other topics, the March 10 protest. Two law students addressed the Senate at the invitation of Hudson, who serves as a co-chair for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on GPSS.
Patrice Collins GRD ’22, president of the GPSS senate, told those gathered that she had met with Kimberly Goff-Crews, vice president for University life at Yale, to discuss free speech policy at Yale Law School. Collins added that representatives from Salovey’s office and members of the Yale Police Department will meet with students to further discuss these issues, according to Austin. Kroszner denied that members of Salovey’s office or of the YPD would meet with students. Instead, Kroszner said an administrator from Goff-Crews’ office would hold the meeting.
Austin expressed his disappointment, however, that representatives of the Federalist Society, which organized the panel, were not included in the meeting. Additionally, he took issue with the students who addressed the Senate having organized an open letter condemning the police presence at the protest.
“Obviously, I believe representatives of my chapter deserve a seat at the table when this discussion takes place, particularly if the letter-writers are invited,” Austin told the News. “I would welcome the opportunity to respectfully discuss these issues with university administrators and my fellow law students.”
But several of the protesters hoped to instead discuss why armed police were present at the event. In previous conversations with the News, Rachel Perler LAW ’22 and Henry Robinson LAW ’24 expressed their hope that any meeting with students and law school administrators would focus on the police presence at the protest.
“Organizers of the demonstration are planning to meet with members of the law school administration later this week, and we’re hoping that this issue will take center stage in our discussion,” Robinson told the News.
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Update, April 4: This story has been updated to include a statement from Law School Spokesperson Debra Kroszner, which denies Austin’s claim that members of Salovey’s office or the YPD will be present at a forthcoming meeting between administrators and students. It has also been updated to include more direct quotation from Stith’s statement.