Last month, students at Yale Law School went to a panel on free speech and attempted to disrupt the event. After a warning by a Yale professor who was in the room, the students left but they continued their noisy protest in the hallway outside, disrupting not just the panel but other events taking place in the building at the same time. Despite the disruption, the panelists and students who wanted to attend refused to cancel the event and did their best to be heard despite the noise.
Some, including Mark Joesph Stern at Slate, have attempted to argue that the disruption after the students left the classroom wasn’t that bad but those claims were contradicted by others who were actually present.
Earlier this week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released more than 90 minutes of audio which they argue shows conclusively that the students did their best to disrupt the panel:
Now, unredacted audio recordings acquired by FIRE dispel the confusion created by conflicting accounts of the event and show how protesters did everything they could to prevent the audience from hearing the speakers.
Protesters banged on walls, stomped on the ground, chanted “Fuck you FedSoc,” and screamed at the panelists, creating so much noise that classes and events in the same building were disrupted. The cacophony persisted for the majority of the event, and though panelists struggled to project their voices over the noise, the audience remained largely unable to hear them.
And what did Yale’s administration do to stop this? Nothing.
FIRE was reacting to a statement from Yale Law Dean Heather Gerken in which she announced that the protesters would not face any disciplinary action because the panel had not been canceled.
In accordance with the University’s free expression policy, which includes a three-warning protocol, those protesting exited the room after the first warning, and the event went forward. Had the protestors shut down the event, our course of action would have been straightforward — the offending students without question would have been subject to discipline. Although the students complied with University policies inside the event, several students engaged in rude and insulting behavior as the event began; a number made excessive noise in our hallways that interfered with several events taking place; and some refused to listen to our staff.
This behavior was unacceptable; at a minimum it violated the norms of this Law School. This is an institution of higher learning, not a town square, and no one should interfere with others’ efforts to carry on activities on campus. YLS is a professional school, and this is not how lawyers interact. We are also a community that respects our faculty and staff who have devoted their lives to helping students. Professor Kate Stith, Dean Mike Thompson, and other members of the staff should not have been treated as they were. I expect far more from our students, and I want to state unequivocally that this cannot happen again. My administration will be in serious discussion with our students about our policies and norms for the rest of the semester.
In sum, while the behavior of some of the students was clearly “unacceptable,” nothing will be done about it because panelists refused to give in to the heckler’s veto.
That didn’t sit well with Professor Stith, who was the professor in the room who gave students their first warning. Today the Free Beacon notes that professor Stith has written what amounts to a response to Dean Gerken arguing that students did violate Yale’s speech policy. Here’s a bit of the memo:
FACTS: The hallway disruption was far more than excessively noisy. An audiotape released on March 29 by the group FIRE* reveals disruption and interference even while the protesters were in Room 127. The audiotape further reveals the shocking and extraordinary disruption of the event after the protesters moved (twice) to the School’s main hallway—yelling, stomping, powerful chanting, and wall-banging. Students and faculty have also reported serious disruption of a faculty meeting and of two classes that were being conducted in other classrooms off the main hallway. Presumably there are audio/video tapes associated with these other classroom events. These recordings would also reveal the extent of interference.
LAW: It is critical to understand that Yale’s Free Expression policy does not only prohibit disruption that successfully shuts down an event or class. Rather, Yale’s policy prohibits “disrupting” an event, including “interfere[ing] with speakers’ ability to be heard and of community members to listen.”…
ANALYSIS: Limiting Yale’s policy to prohibit only “shutting down” events would make no sense. Whether speakers persevere depends in part on how difficult it would be to move the event to a different platform, place, or day. Even more importantly, whether to shut down an event depends on the speakers’ and audience members’ personalities, hearing abilities, and preferences as to which is worse—giving in and stopping the event, or continuing in hard-to-speak/hard-to-hear and uncomfortable circumstances…
As a former prosecutor, I know well that not every violation has to be an occasion for sanctions. 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. That said, we cannot make the most of this opportunity unless we recognize that a blatant violation of Yale’s Free Expression policy occurred on March 10.
Professor Stitch doesn’t directly say she’s asking for students to be disciplined. That last paragraph could be taken as her saying the opposite. However, she is asking Dean Gerken not to pretend the students didn’t violate the policy simply because the panel wasn’t canceled. And according to Gerken, if she had determined they did violate the policy they’d be subject to discipline. That doesn’t mean they’d get discipline but it would be on the table. Maybe that’s what professor Stitch is asking for here. She’s not looking to see a bunch of students disciplined (though maybe some should be) but she wants them, collectively, to know they crossed a line to the point they could be in real trouble.
I guess we’ll see if Dean Gerken changes her mind or continues to pretend Yale’s speech policy finds this sort of thing acceptable.