Buckley Program hosts free speech event after recent Yale Law School controversy


Eda Aker and Sarah Cook, collaborating photographers

Amid national conversations about racism and free speech sparked by Yale Law School’s recent handling of an allegedly discriminatory email sent by student Trent Colbert LAW ’23, the William F. Buckley Jr hosted a discussion on Friday on how universities are balancing free speech with complaints of discrimination from students.

The current controversy surrounding law school is based on an email Colbert circulated in mid-September, which invited students to a ‘trap’ themed social event hosted by the Federalist Society and Native American. Law Students Association, featuring “Popeye’s chicken and basic American themed snacks.” After nine students lodged complaints with the law school about how the email and the theme of the party offended them, law school administrators spoke with Colbert about writing a letter d apologized to his peers and condemned the email in a message to his class. The Washington Free Beacon released a recording of the meeting and wrote on Oct. 13 about the series of events at law school as a free speech controversy. Since then, the incident has garnered media coverage from the Atlantic, the Washington Post and Slate and sparked national conversations about how free speech works in colleges and universities, particularly with regard to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

The William F. Buckley Jr. program was founded by undergraduates in 2010 and aims to promote intellectual diversity by creating a forum for conservative speakers and speeches on campus. He invited two speakers involved in the recent media coverage of Yale Law School to address the students on Friday. Aaron Sibarium ’18, who broke the news of Colbert’s story for the right-wing Washington Free Beacon, and Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a non-partisan organization that covered the ‘event at Law School and aims to defend the rights of students and professors in colleges and universities in America, spoke at the event. About 100 people attended the Zoom panel.

“There are few places, in my opinion, where free speech is more important than the college campus,” said Kevin Xiao ’23, director of program speakers and moderator of Friday’s event. “Especially at Yale, with its own unique history of free expression, the intellectual vitality of the university demands that students and faculty be able to speak out without fear of administrative retaliation or coercion for what they say.”

At the start of the event, Sibarium and Shibley both gave their thoughts on Colbert’s email and Yale’s handling of the situation. Shibley began by expressing concern about how, in Colbert’s recording of his meeting with law school administrators, Director of Diversity and Inclusion Yaseen Eldik mentioned having previously written letters of apology and how he could help Colbert write one. Shibley said he was also alarmed at how, during that meeting, Colbert was faced with “veiled threats” that the email could potentially harm his position at the bar.

During the event, Shibley said he was primarily concerned with the message the Yale administration sent to the entire Yale community about the consequences they may face if they dissent on issues. controversial political issues. This was true in Colbert’s case, he said, because Colbert’s membership in conservative federalist society was described by Eldik as a trigger for some of his peers. According to Shibley, “the underlying political factors” associated with Colbert’s case “reek of McCarthyism.”

“We should really all be alarmed that Yale Law School administrators are willing to take a student to multiple meetings where they push him to do and say things he is not comfortable with.” , said Shibley. “Yale is a private school, but like most private schools, it guarantees free speech for students. It also implies the freedom not to speak, which in 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 say too often that their detractors repress their speech.

Spearman-Weaver wrote that you have to look at discourse that is perceived as racist to be anti-racist.

“You have to be able to speak freely about how the perceived speech is harmful,” she wrote. “Yet what we continue to see are people pulling out of this engagement process when criticized and still demanding the broadest protections of free speech for their own opinions.”

In the conversation, the fact that some students saw Colbert’s membership in the Federalist Society as a trigger also sparked a conversation about political censorship. Sibarium told the News that while organizations like the Federalist Society can “subjectively trigger people,” such grievances should not be elevated to the level of law school administration.

Sibarium also noted an imbalance in the incentives that administrators face in situations like that of law school. According to Sibarium, failure to respond to harassment allegations can have 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 isn’t really a core compensatory bureaucracy that listens to people who say their freedom of speech has been violated and who feel the DCI office has gone too far,” Sibarium said in a statement. interview before the event. “And because there’s this kind of bureaucratic power imbalance within Yale itself, I think that’s why, at least in my opinion, you tend to see overreacting in one direction, and why the game tends to be sort of stacked against the people in… Colbert’s situation.

Sibarium told the News that this counterweight could be achieved with internal institutional controls to protect freedom of expression. In this case, Sibarium said it could have manifested itself in a directors meeting with Colbert while telling him that his freedom of speech would be protected from the outset, which would have prevented “the whole firestorm.” , according to Sibarium.

But AJ Hudson LAW ’22 told the News that administrators told students who filed complaints, and several student leaders who were involved, that Colbert was not risking discipline. Administrators cited and linked the University’s stance on free speech as their justification for not taking action against Colbert, he said.

Media attention to Colbert “appeared out of nowhere,” said Hudson.

“People write the article they want to write about free speech, not what really happened,” Hudson said. “It’s really not a question of free speech rights. Not at all.”

At the event, Shibley said the law school’s response was inappropriate because it created a “chill effect” in which students like Colbert think they are not “tolerated” for “slippages” in their university.

In response to a question about growing concerns about micro-aggression, both speakers expressed frustration with the term “micro-aggression,” which Shibley equated to “rude” and called “sort of rhetorical gimmick. “.

When asked how Yale should have reacted to Colbert’s case, Shibley referred to the University of Chicago system for handling similar cases. The administration at the University of Chicago, he said, has decided not to get involved in matters relating to “this type of conflict,” which Shibley sees as ideal because in the real world he does not. There is no such system for reporting offensive words or actions.

Both Shibley and Sibarium expressed additional concern that during his meeting with the directors Colbert learned that the reaction to his email would be influenced by Colbert being native. From there, Shibley and Sibarium, who are both white, explained that they believe there is unjustified preferential treatment towards people of color, which violates the idea of ​​equal justice before 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 law school “have strong protections for free speech” and that students are not “investigated or sanctioned for protected speech.”

“When the law school receives complaints about offensive communications, the Dean of Students regularly tries to help students talk to each other and resolve their disagreements within the community,” Kroszner wrote.

Sibarium advised students to keep records of meetings and emails so they can have evidence if they are accused of harassment. Prior to the meeting, he told the News that while he did not necessarily encourage “a standard where we record private conversations,” keeping recordings of emails and screenshots is useful in protecting freedom. expression.

“At the individual level, do not legitimize the cancellation of cultural crowds and make sure you do everything in your power within reasonable ethical limits to protect yourself if you are truly the target of a witch hunt,” he said. Sibarium told News.

The event is accessible on the Buckley program’s YouTube channel.


Eda Aker is a freshman at Timothy Dwight College.


Nancy I. Romero

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