Yale spoofers threatened with legal action by Students for Life America
After interviewing Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life America as part of a satirical video on anti-abortion activism, a team of Yale filmmakers has been hit with two cease-and-desist notices.
Courtesy of Maya Weldon
On Oct. 14, 2022, Zoe Larkin ’24 and Ella Attell ’24 sat down with Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life America, for an interview.
The next day, Larkin and Attell received a cease-and-desist order from Hawkins’ lawyer, Zac Kester.
Students for Life America organization touts its mission as “to recruit, train and mobilize the pro-life generation to abolish abortion.”
The interview footage was meant to serve as part of a Borat-esque spoof video on campus conservatism entitled “Conservative Women for Conservative Values Presents: Operation Save Yale Now, Our Movie,” which Larkin and Attell had been working on since the summer. The cease-and desist ordered them to delete the footage of Hawkins, under the claim that the students had acted illegally by interviewing her under false premises and had infringed on copyrighted SFLA material.
“We didn’t anticipate it being as much of a free speech issue as it was,” Attell explained. “We did not think that we would get possibly sued, but the intention was definitely to capitalize on the fact that conservatives are really excited to hear that a group on campus supports them because they feel victimized, they think by, like, the liberal culture on elite campuses.”
In the film, Larkin and Attell, posing as disillusioned pro-lifers Reagan Smith and Bertha Childs, invited Hawkins on a podcast they had set up. The two knew Hawkins would be at Yale because she announced online that she would be speaking at Saint Thomas Moore in New Haven.
At the interview, they presented her with an award for “Conservative VIP of the Year,” a papier-mache and PVC flower cheerily painted in pastel pinks and oranges and regaled her with their business concept: a clothing line aimed at tween mothers — “Do you think it has legs?” Larkin asks in the video; Hawkins replies, “Online, for sure.”
The tactic used by Kester is known as “prior restraint” — with the goal of getting rid of inflammatory material before reaching the public at all via a preemptive cease-and-desist. Prior restraint is severely restricted by the First Amendment to material that is exceptionally libelous or harmful, as it is a form of censorship.
“The tone of the letters is very, very aggressive,” Larkin explained. “It was very clear they meant to intimidate us into deleting everything.”
The two sought legal counsel from David Schoen, whose complex career record includes a long stint as a civil rights lawyer and a shorter one as an attorney who represented Donald Trump during his second Senate impeachment trial. Schoen, the father of a friend, took interest in the case since it grappled with the issues of free speech and artistic expression.
The students also reached out to Dean Pericles Lewis, who, among other Yale administration members, had been contacted by SFLA in the wake of the interview. Lewis responded by email, stating that he would inform them if further action was needed and did not request they avoid posting the video.
Lewis declined to comment to the News on the matter.
On Oct. 27, a second cease-and-desist order came in, part doubling-down and part answer to the complaints Schoen had raised in a response to the initial order.
Schoen had claimed that SFLA employees had engaged in anti-Semitic behavior toward video director Leo Egger ’24 by telling him that being a Jew was “halfway there” in relation to Christianity. Kester replied by calling the students themselves anti-Semitic for satirizing a common anti-abortion trope in which activists compare abortions to the Holocaust.
“[I]t is not anti-semitic to discuss the differences between religious views and to attempt to persuade others that one religion is more persuasive than another,” Kester wrote in the second order.
As Jewish students themselves, Attell and Larkin were concerned by the vitriol they were receiving and even feared for their physical safety.
When Hawkins went on Instagram Live in the midst of the drama to call the two “weird,” commenters responded “Wow. The devil is a sneaky one” and “ask your guardian angel to protect you from evil” in reference to the students.
Attell told the News that she believed Kester imposed “non-legal and illegitimate deadlines” for turning over their footage in an attempt to further intimidate the students, under the assumption that they would lack the legal know-how to comb through the validity of the requests.
Attell and Larkin added further that Hawkins’s legal team had found Attell’s LinkedIn and threatened to contact her former internship employers, which Attell viewed as an intimidation technique aimed at scaring them into submission.
The two viewed the cease-and-desist as an attack on their own rights to free speech.
“It’s hypocritical also, because [SFLA] has sued universities on … the grounds of free speech violation for not letting them have a chapter,” Larkin stated.
Attell and Larkin also argue that they offered Hawkins a plethora of opportunities to push back on their rhetoric, which often verged on the absurd. At moments in the interview, the two said, Hawkins does express hesitation at the views expressed by Attell’s and Larkin’s personae.
“We weren’t trying to humiliate her by any means,” Attell added. “We were trying to take the pro-life agenda and push it to a point that revealed its own absurdity … it had little to do with her and way more to do with the philosophy.”
In an email to the News, Kristi Hamrick, chief media and policy strategist for SFLA, called Larkin and Attell “deceptive and dishonest about themselves and the product they wanted to make.”
Hamrick claimed that Larkin and Attell “unlawfully” made use of the logos of both SFLA and Yale — “two prestigious organizations” — prompting SFLA to send a “cease in desist [sic] letter” asking for the removal of the logo and for the video of Hawkins to not be used.
“Satire is an art form not all can master, and in this video, we don’t see success with the genre,” Hamrick wrote. “However, as these women’s careers unfold, this article and other media hits will be available to warn off other potential victims to their attempts at humor.”
The video was posted on YouTube on Nov. 5, 2022.
Correction, Nov. 9: A previous version of this article misattributed one of Attell’s quotes to Larkin. The article has been updated.