Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Racism, Conservatism And Free Speech At Yale Law School


Following up on my previous posts (links below):  Yale Daily News, Email From Yale Law Student Sparks National Discussion on Racism and Free Speech:

Yale Law Logo (2020)A month after a student sent an email that some saw as racially insensitive, a wide discussion has started about racism, conservatism and free speech at Yale Law School.

Trent Colbert LAW ’23, a member of the Native American Law Students Association and the Federalist Society, sent the email on Sept. 15 to the NALSA listserv to announce a social event between the two groups. Moments later, the email was shared with a GroupMe chat for Law School students in the class of 2023, resulting in extensive discourse in the chat over student concerns about the email and explanations of how its rhetoric could be understood as racially and misogynistically charged. After receiving multiple complaints about the email, two Law School administrators met with Colbert, urging him to send a class-wide apology to his peers and explaining that his reputation could be negatively affected by the situation, according to a public recording of the meeting.

The email has since gained national attention from multiple news outlets. On Monday, Dean of Yale Law School Heather Gerken sent a community-wide email addressing the situation and saying that she will “take any steps necessary” to ensure that the Law School lives up to its values of free speech while still creating an inclusive environment for all students.

“The vigorous exchange of ideas is the lifeblood of this Law School,” Gerken wrote in the email. “Protecting free speech is a core value of any academic institution; so too is cultivating an environment of respect and inclusion. These two values are mutually reinforcing and sit at the heart of an intellectual community like ours.”

Gerken wrote that she has tapped Deputy Dean Ian Ayres to assess the situation. With information beyond the “partial facts reported out in a charged media environment,” she would decide how to ensure the institution “lives up to its values,” Gerken wrote. Ayres did not respond to a request for comment. ...

The email was signed by Colbert. He told the News this week that “at the time, there was no review process for emails sent to the NALSA listserv.”

Some students immediately took issue with Colbert’s chosen language, pointing out that “trap house” — which is slang for a place to sell drugs — has negative racial connotations. A Sept. 16 poll in the Law School class of 2023 GroupMe, which was obtained and reviewed by the News, found that out of 87 respondents, 49 found the use of the “trap house” theme to be offensive, seven did not find it offensive, and the remaining 31 did not know or understand the definition of trap house.

“[My family is] from Oakland, California, from the Bay Area, from these places that you could call trap houses,” Marina Edwards LAW ’23, president of Yale Black Law Students Association,  told the News. “I have friends that are in jail for selling drugs for being overly criminalized, right, so for me it was uncomfortable because it was presented as the juvenile mockery thing that it’s like I know people in jail for.”

Colbert told the News that he stands by his language, citing its “wide” usage in popular culture.

Edwards added that she also found Colbert’s email offensive because the event was hosted by the Federalist Society, which she said “is historically known for supporting anti-Black and anti-woman rhetoric. ...

Sterling Professor of sociology Nicholas Christakis wrote on Twitter that “a dean at Yale Law School drafted (unasked) an apology note for a student to sign and tried to pressure him into doing so. This is the sort of act we roundly condemn when the police or totalitarian governments engage in variants of it.” ...

On Sept. 17, after a second meeting with Colbert, Cosgrove and Eldik emailed the second-year class. An “invitation was recently circulated containing pejorative and racist language,” the administrators’ email reads. “We condemn this in the strongest possible terms [and] are working on addressing this.”

Still, since the meetings, Yale Law School has affirmed its commitment to free speech on campus. “Yale University and Yale Law School have strong free speech protections, and no student is investigated or sanctioned for protected speech,” Law School spokesperson Debra Kroszner wrote in an email to the News. “When the Law School receives complaints about offensive communications, the Dean of Students routinely tries to help students talk to one another and resolve their disagreements within the community.” ...

“I do think that there’s an atmosphere at Yale Law School where people are constantly under threat of denunciation by more progressive student activist types for one reason or another,” Colbert wrote in an email to the News. “This isn’t the first time I’ve seen it happen in the GroupMe, although this case was special because it escalated to administrative involvement. I think that the culture of public shaming and demanding apologies is unhealthy and encourages people’s worst tendencies. People are less interested in discussion than domination, which is worrisome, considering the importance of this institution.”

Josh Blackman (South Texas), Character and Fitness in the Trap House:

One of the most disconcerting elements of the Yale fiasco was the threat to report the student to the bar.

Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:

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