Convulsions at Yale Law School: Administrators Do Damage Control as Faculty Members Slam School's Dishonesty

Yale Law School professor: "Please correct the record — I would not want to have to do it for you."

Yale University / Getty Images
October 18, 2021

Yale Law School dean Heather Gerken on Monday promised an investigation into the controversy surrounding Trent Colbert, the second-year law student and Federalist Society member who sent a lighthearted email inviting classmates to his "trap house."

Gerken vowed not to "act on the basis of partial facts reported out in a charged media environment"—though dozens of primary-source documents corroborating the incident have emerged—and announced that Yale Law School deputy dean Ian Ayres would "assess the situation" and "help us think how best to move forward."

It is unclear whether administrators will issue an apology for their conduct along the lines of the one they drafted for Colbert, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has proposed.

Yale Law School told the Washington Free Beacon that Ayres's investigation would not result in any further action against Colbert. "As our statement last week made clear, this is protected speech," said Debra Krozner, the law school's managing director of public affairs. "It will not lead to any action against the student."

Gerken's announcement comes in the wake of widespread outrage over the administration's aggressive handling of the incident and its tendentious response to news reports about it, including from two prominent Yale Law professors who lambasted the university's official statement.

That earlier statement, released Oct. 13 in the wake of a Free Beacon report about the process to which Colbert had been subjected, denied that the second-year law student faced "any disciplinary investigation" or action over his email.

The denial sparked fierce blowback from two Yale Law School professors who lambasted the dishonesty of their own university. One of those professors, corporate legal scholar Roberta Romano, threatened to "correct the record" if the law school did not do so itself. The administration's actions toward Colbert, Romano wrote Krozner, are "in direct and total conflict with what you stated," noting that the school's diversity director had made "a sly threat" about the student's career.

"Please correct the record," she added. "I would not want to have to do it for you."

Another Yale Law professor, who asked to remain anonymous, said the initial statement was "appallingly disingenuous and full of falsehoods." Yale Law School "stated 'no student is investigated or sanctioned for protected speech,'" the professor told the Free Beacon. "It's hard to square that statement with the Dean of Student Affairs summoning a student for questioning in response to allegations by other students, with the Diversity Director ominously warning the student that if he doesn't apologize his admission to the bar could be threatened, or with the Law School sending a message to the entire second-year class condemning the student's email as 'racist.' If all that isn't an 'investigation,' then it's even worse—a pronouncement of guilt without investigation."

The outrage has bubbled over into other elite universities. Keith Whittington, a legal theorist at Princeton and a member of the Academic Freedom Alliance, said Yale Law's actions were "highly inappropriate and completely incompatible with maintaining a free speech culture in a law school."

"There is no question that such actions send a chilling message across the student body and convey clearly that the law school is a hostile environment for conservative students," Whittington told the Free Beacon.

The imbroglio started when Colbert, a member of the Native American Students Association and the Federalist Society, invited classmates to a happy hour cohosted by the two groups. In a Sept. 15 email, he announced that Popeyes chicken would be served at his "trap house," a slang term for a place where people buy drugs.

The message elicited nine discrimination complaints in under 12 hours, according to administrators, which prompted Associate Dean Ellen Cosgrove and Diversity Director Yaseen Eldik to summon Colbert to a series of meetings in which they pressured him to apologize for his email—with Eldik going so far as to imply that Colbert could face trouble with the bar if he didn't apologize. When Colbert didn't send a written apology drafted by the administration, Cosgrove and Eldik emailed the second-year class about his initial message, which they characterized as "pejorative" and "racist," adding that the administration condemned it in "the strongest possible terms."

The student complaints emphasized Colbert's membership in the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group that Eldik said was "oppressive to certain communities." Those complaints intensified after the Free Beacon published audio of Eldik's meeting with Colbert: Between Oct. 17 and Oct. 18, several students sent law school-wide emails denouncing Colbert and the Federalist Society, which one student group characterized as "violent."

"The pooled legal knowledge of our membership cannot name every [Federalist Society] decision that has harmed our communities," Yale's Dred Scott Society wrote in a 2,555-word email on Oct. 18—"a testament to the extensiveness of this violence."

Colbert's actions, the society members continued, "are yet another example of the way that [Federalist Society] members attempt to weaponize discourse against the very people trying to have conversations in community with him"—conversations Colbert says were only initiated after the student complaints had been filed.

"Trent's narrative of being a victim of cancel culture based on his membership in [the Federalist Society] attempts to both diminish the harm that he caused and erase the role that his own actions played in causing the harm in the first place. "

The president of the Black Law Students association, Marina Edwards, likewise rejected the idea that Colbert had been "cancelled."

"Black students did not attempt to cancel Trent," she wrote in an Oct. 17 email to the law school. "Calling out someone who behaves irresponsibly toward historically marginalized communities, regardless of their own identity, is not an act of oppression; it is an act of love and compassion for those whose lives are daily ripped apart and trampled upon by systems (and people) of oppression."

Edwards did not respond to a request for comment.

If students are not attempting to cancel Colbert, they are attempting to remove him from his position as a student representative. In response to "concerns surrounding Trent Colbert's conduct," the law school's student government said in an Oct. 16 email that it drafted an entirely new set of procedures for removing student representatives. It remains unclear whether the student government will use those procedures against Colbert.

Another student group, the First Generation Professionals at Yale Law School, sent an email on Oct. 18 to "affirm" Edwards's message and "condemn the racist email sent by Trent Colbert." The group said it "recognize[d]" the "harmful impacts" of "hostile media coverage" on black students and thanked Eldik for attempting to "educate Trent and repair harm within the [Yale Law School] community."

The emails from Edwards and the Dred Scott Society also invoked the concept of "dialogue" pioneered by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian Marxist who praised Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution as "the most genial solution" to "oppressive" pedagogy.

"Critical dialogue is about holding space for positive growth and change," Edwards wrote, citing "Freirian praxis."

But, the Dred Scott Society clarified, "to engage in dialogue, we must all hold all of the cards."

Fwd a Message About the Media Coverage in the Recent Days by Washington Free Beacon on Scribd

Fwd a Reflection on the Federalist Society and Dialogue From the Dred Scott Society by Washington Free Beacon on Scribd

Fwd FGP Board Statement on Critical Dialogue at YLS by Washington Free Beacon on Scribd

Update 8:15 p.m.: This piece has been updated with some corrections to the Scribd documents.