Free speech is under fire at America’s universities. It’s an open secret that liberals dominate academia and wield their power with impunity on college campuses.
But recently, radical leftists have become more brazen with their attempts to silence speech and organizations they don’t like.
During a recent bipartisan free speech event at Yale Law School, a mob of student protesters shouted down Kristen Waggoner, general counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom.
Protesters were “shouting down the speakers, shouting down some of their fellow students who had conservative views, and then they left and started pounding on the walls outside of the exits at the building, eventually creating what felt like an unsafe environment and the police were called,” says Waggoner.
Waggoner joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss what happened at that Yale event, and how free speech is in decline at America’s universities.
We also cover these stories:
- Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson takes hours of questions from senators on topics ranging from abortion to child pornography.
- Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, vetoes a bill that would have prevented biological males from competing in women’s sports.
- A federal judge temporarily blocks enforcement of a D.C. law allowing children to be vaccinated without parental consent.
Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited podcast below.
Douglas Blair: My guest today is Kristen Waggoner, general counsel for the civil liberties legal defense group Alliance Defending Freedom. Kristen, welcome to the show.
Kristen Waggoner: Thanks for having me.
Blair: You were recently at a bipartisan free speech event at Yale when suddenly your event was interrupted by a group of activist students that tried to shut down the event by protesting. Would you be able to walk us through what actually happened that day?
Waggoner: Sure. We were invited by a student group to come on campus, I along with another colleague, Monica Miller, who is with the American Humanist Association.
And the point of the panel, which was in a classroom in the law school, was to really model to the students what civility looks like and how people who are vastly different in terms of their ideological views came together on a free speech case, and a case that was important to protect civil liberties, the civil liberties of people on the left and the right.
And there were about 150 or so kids there I’m told, and about 120 of them didn’t just break out in a protest, but really started making the classroom a very volatile environment.
Blair: Now, by hostile environment, what do you mean by that? Were they yelling? Were they shouting? Was it physical? What happened?
Waggoner: Well, and I wouldn’t even say hostile. Hostile doesn’t bother me. Volatile bothers me. This is Yale Law School. These are supposed to be the future leaders, future lawyers, jurors, legislators, corporate executives.
And rather than simply debate ideas, if they had objections, they resorted to hurling insults, using obscene gestures and language, eventually shouting down the speakers, shouting down some of their fellow students who had conservative views.
And then they left and started pounding on the walls outside of the exits at the building, eventually creating what felt like an unsafe environment and the police were called.
Blair: Now, you mentioned this, and I thought that that was such an interesting angle to this story, too, that these are law students. These are, presumably, people that will be lawyers and judges and people involved in the legal world in the near future. I mean, how does that show that they’re prepared to take on that responsibility? What does that mean about them?
Waggoner: I’m not sure what I’m more alarmed by, the fact that those students wanted instead to opt for a physical intimidation and harassment over logic and civility and debate, or if I’m more surprised and alarmed by the Yale administration’s response, which was shockingly to not condemn the students and actually suggest there was no threat at all.
Blair: So did they release a statement or say anything about it? Did they just sweep it under the rug? What did Yale say after this happened?
Waggoner: It turns out that there was, I think it was an associate or assistant dean that was in the room through the whole thing. There’s a policy at Yale that’s called a free speech policy that prohibits students from essentially a heckler’s veto and from physical intimidation and these types of taunts and things that they were engaged in. So they were violating the school’s policy. The school was aware of it, even present at it. They did nothing.
And then after this came out, the press somehow got a hold of it—I don’t know—and contacted me, then Yale issued a statement that basically said, “The video that you see was the extent of the disruption. The event continued without disruption and security, thankfully, was never needed.” Which is just completely false.
Blair: Now, it’s interesting that you mentioned that, because the moderator for this was a Yale Law School professor named Kate Stith. And there’s a clip that we do see online where she tells the protesters to grow up. So it seems like somebody in the room viewed this as a problem, but the administrators at the school didn’t. I mean, that kind of seems to be the norm, right? That doesn’t seem to happen a lot, where professors will actually come out and say, “Hey, stop being a child.”
Waggoner: You’re absolutely right. I have so much respect for professor Stith and how she handled it.
I also think it’s important to realize, for listeners who are wanting to know more about this, that video was in the first five minutes at the most, where she is introducing the speakers, the professor is. And you can only imagine if they treated their professor that way, giving her the middle finger, yelling out obscenities, interrupting her, how it went for the rest of the event.
And listeners can hear that through the audio clips that demonstrate that disruption did not end when she warned the students, all that happened next was it escalated.
Blair: Now, listeners, we will include some of those audio clips in the write-up for this podcast, but I want to move on to your opposite on the panel, which was Monica Miller. This was not another conservative. This was somebody who was a progressive. So she works for the American Humanist Association. She was probably more politically aligned with the protesters than maybe you would be. Did she say or do anything while the students were protesting at the event? Was she concerned as well?
Waggoner: Well, there’s no probably about it. The reason that the two of us, I think, were invited was, one, because I argued the case and her organization filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of it, as did many other progressively left organizations realizing the threat to civil liberties.
But I think Monica describes herself as a progressive atheist. And I would describe myself as a conservative Christian. So we really are on polar opposites of issues. And Monica let the students know that right at the outset. She let them know, “I stand with you. Many of your views I share.” And that did nothing to curb the hostility or the way she was treated or I was treated for the remainder of the event, which again, was to talk about a very noncontroversial principle that was at stake in the case.
Blair: And what exactly is this case that we’re talking about? What was the situation that led to this discussion?
Waggoner: The case focused on a student called Chike Uzuegbunam, and he was on his college campus, the Georgia Gwinnett College campus. He was trying to share his faith, and school officials shut down that speech several times, well, twice I should say to be clear, in clear violation of the Constitution.
Now, Chike didn’t suffer, well, he did suffer damages, but it was hard to put a price tag on what those damages are. It’s hard to say, “If you lose the right to be able to speak, what dollar amount do you put on that?”
So the issue in the case was, when our civil rights are violated by the government, if we can’t prove the harm in dollars and cents, can we still litigate that case in court and/or does the government get a free pass?
And so you can see whether it’s a Fourth Amendment violation, due process violation, think about stop-and-frisk or discriminatory treatment, how that principle would apply across the spectrum. We’re all in this together in terms of the government not violating our rights.
Blair: So it sounds like this case that you guys were discussing really didn’t have anything to do with some of the things that they were protesting.
So I have some reporting from the New York Post here, and apparently Ms. Miller received an email before the event started that said, “We are at a loss to understand why the American Humanist Association has decided to legitimize an organization that is so actively hostile to queer flourishing.” It doesn’t sound like the case that you were discussing had anything do with that.
Waggoner: No, it certainly didn’t, and nor do we need Yale to legitimize the work that we’re doing. We’ve prevailed in 13 Supreme Court victories in the last nine years. This case was just one of them. Most of our work is focused broadly on campus free speech, on ensuring religious freedom for everyone.
And really, I think the protesters were obsessed with the idea that we take the position, in certain instances, there are legitimate biological distinctions between men and women, and the law needs to recognize those in those instances. And women’s sports is one.
So that issue—they were hurling insults, and as you may have seen in the reports, the first question from the student was, “What’s the remedy for a dead trans kid?” That’s just not engaging in good faith. It’s not a legitimate question. And it’s certainly not exercising civility to discuss an important topic.
Blair: We’ve used the term “heckler’s veto” in this podcast a little bit earlier. So during the clip that we’ve seen, the protesters attempted to, possibly trying to be fresh or trying to be clever, say that they were justifying their actions by what they were doing was free speech. Is there any legitimacy to the idea that a heckler’s veto is a form of free speech?
Waggoner: I sure hope that Yale Law is doing a better job of teaching what free speech is to their students than what those students exemplified and said at this. The idea—certainly we support the right to express your opinion, certainly we even support the right to protest, but we need to remember what the context of this was.
If you want to protest outside, fine. This was in a law school classroom at an event that was supposed to be a legal panel. And that protest crossed the line in terms of physically threatening other people at the protest, pounding on the walls, blocking the exits, chanting obscene gestures and language so that the event was substantially disrupted.
And that isn’t free speech. It’s not free speech protected by the Constitution. And Yale needs to do a better job of embracing and promoting free speech, especially for conservative speakers and students.
Blair: There was a proposal made by a guy named David Lat. He’s the founder of legal website Above the Law, and he suggested on Twitter earlier that the law students who shouted down the protest should be disqualified from potential clerkships. Does that seem like an appropriate response to what happened here?
Waggoner: Actually, I’m not sure that David proposed that. That was actually proposed by a federal appellate judge initially. And I think David essentially wrote something on it.
What has been reported is that there’s now been a discussion among the federal bench, among the jurors, saying that if they learn that these Yale students participated in this, that they should take a close look at whether they’re fit to serve as judicial clerks. And I think that that’s right in many ways.
Certainly people make mistakes and kids make mistakes, but if they haven’t learned by the time they’re entering a clerkship what is and isn’t appropriate and what the marks of an exceptional lawyer are, which includes being civil to your opponent, then I’m concerned about the future of the legal profession.
Blair: So we’ve been seeing this, I feel like, for years. When I was in college all those years ago, I was looking at this and seeing that there was this really anti-free speech, anti-discourse mentality that existed on college campuses. In the legal profession, have we seen some of the consequences of that burgeoning anti-discourse mentality coming into play? Or is it just sort of still on college campuses?
Waggoner: It is definitely in the law schools and Yale is supposed to be one of the foremost law schools to train our future leaders, which, again, makes it so concerning that Yale would essentially not condemn this mob mentality, which looks a whole lot more like tyranny than true educational opportunities, intellectual curiosity, and engaging in critical thinking.
Blair: Now, Kristen, you’ve argued college free speech cases in front of the Supreme Court before. We just talked about the one that was the sort of center of the discussion you were supposed to have with Ms. Miller. How have things changed since you initially argued those cases in terms of campus free speech?
Waggoner: I would say that there are more speech violations now than what we have ever seen in terms of the volatility of the campuses, campus administrators’ willingness to embrace this mob mentality that comes not only from the students, but from officials refusing to protect the rights of essentially conservative speakers most often.
We also see studies that say people across a broad variety of spectrums feel like they can’t say what their opinion is if it’s not in the norm because they risk this type of intimidation.
So it’s deeply concerning. And I will say this, just to look at the difference between maybe five or six years ago and being on the Yale campus and debating much more difficult controversial issues to this last week and how Yale responded, the difference is just, it’s mind-boggling to see the escalation of hostility, intimidation, and really the decrease in civil discourse.
Blair: Do we think this escalation is coming from, what it sounds like, the refusal of administrators to tamp down on it? Or is this something that’s coming from the larger culture that’s imbuing these students with the thought process that it is OK to shout down a speaker they disagree with?
Waggoner: I think it’s both.
When our children are seeing this cancel culture movement and they’re seeing that the more belligerent you are, the more successful you are, when they see people that are not willing stand up with courage or bravery to say their views because they’re afraid, we’re teaching our children. And our children are in the schools and our children go to college, and they continue to face this. And the habits that we create, they matter, they go on for a lifetime.
But I will also say that one of the things I loved about law school was that I was challenged with ideas that I disagreed with. And I had to grapple with those ideas and think about them and figure it out. And what’s clear to me is that schools like Yale aren’t encouraging their students to do that.
Blair: Does Alliance Defending Freedom have any current cases surrounding free speech on campuses?
Waggoner: Oh, we have many cases on campus about campus free speech. We’ve prevailed in, let’s see, I think it’s over 430 victories on campuses related to free speech. We litigate in that area more than any other public-interest organization to protect speech on campus, and we’ll continue to do so. We not only protect the rights of students, but faculty members who are also facing this mob mentality.
Blair: Now, I guess I’m curious, too, because the school seems to be at the very minimum pushing this behavior or not punishing it. So are there any potential consequences for Yale here for not taking action on what the students did?
Waggoner: I think that if you allow a mob to rule and you’re a coward to rein it in, that mob eventually rules over the things that you value as well. And I think that Yale needs to remember that. But in addition to that, you can’t produce exceptional lawyers if those lawyers aren’t willing to engage with people and with ideas that they disagree with.
The whole point of the profession is to engage opponents and to make our arguments persuasively to the court and with civility. So eventually this will affect Yale’s reputation. I think it already has. It will affect the employment prospects of Yale graduates. And it’s for that reason that I hope the dean starts taking this matter seriously and protecting speakers on campus.
Blair: From a legal perspective, though, because it sounds like and I think that we’ve seen that play out a little bit more in the news where these types of stories get more amplified by the fact that people are just so tired of seeing cancel culture on campuses. But are there any legal consequences, like students might be able to take legal action against the school for preventing them either from expressing their First Amendment rights or enjoying their First Amendment rights by listening to speakers talk?
Waggoner: Well, you’re absolutely right. Students have the right to be able to express themselves in appropriate ways on campuses. The free speech policy at Yale was violated multiple times.
I think the problem that we see, frankly, on our Center for Academic Freedom team is that so many students are unwilling to take that legal step or even speak up when their rights are violated. And that makes sense. I mean, when you’re a student, you need a degree, you need favor with your professors. Taking on an institution like Yale would be terrifying in some ways. And yet we win when we do. We have over a 90% win rate in this area.
So I think more students need to speak up, more faculty members need to speak up, and frankly, more parents need to speak up with their kids at their dinner tables and train them to be brave and to know what their rights are.
Blair: Well, Kristen, this is such an important topic, but as we wrap-up here, I’m curious, as somebody who experienced this firsthand—and of course, you are not the only person on the conservative side who has been shouted down or heckled by radical protesters at school events—how should speakers like you, who are going to face this type of opposition, respond to that type of behavior?
Waggoner: As I think back to last week and process it all now, it really only deepens my resolve to do it more. And I think speakers should be committed. If you believe what you’re speaking is true, especially if you believe that it promotes human flourishing and that the legal principles are sound, we need to show up on those campuses and we need to do it with kindness, with civility, with compassion, but also to be resolute and willing to share what we believe is the truth.
I felt so bad for those conservative students who were in one corner of the room who had to be silent, because they were being yelled at and shouted at by people across the aisle. It’s just wrong, and the bullying needs to stop.
Blair: Well, that was Kristen Waggoner, general counsel with civil liberties legal defense group Alliance Defending Freedom. Kristen, very much appreciate your time.
Waggoner: Thank you.
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