Hundreds of Yale Law Students Disrupt Bipartisan Free Speech Event

Nearly two-thirds of student body sign letter in support of rowdy protest

Yale Law School students protest in March 2022
March 16, 2022

More than 100 students at Yale Law School attempted to shout down a bipartisan panel on civil liberties, intimidating attendees and causing so much chaos that police were eventually called to escort panelists out of the building.

The March 10 panel, which was hosted by the Yale Federalist Society, featured Monica Miller of the progressive American Humanist Association and Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative nonprofit that promotes religious liberty. Both groups had taken the same side in a 2021 Supreme Court case involving legal remedies for First Amendment violations. The purpose of the panel, a member of the Federalist Society said, was to illustrate that a liberal atheist and a conservative Christian could find common ground on free speech issues.

"It was pretty much the most innocuous thing you could talk about," he added.

That didn’t stop nearly 120 student protesters from crowding into the event.

When a professor at the law school, Kate Stith, began to introduce Waggoner, the protesters, who outnumbered the audience members, rose in unison, holding signs that attacked ADF. The nonprofit has argued—and won—several Supreme Court cases establishing religious exemptions from civil rights laws, most famously Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in 2018.

As they stood up, the protesters began to antagonize members of the Federalist Society, forcing Stith to pause her remarks. One protester told a member of the conservative group she would "literally fight you, bitch," according to audio and video obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

With the fracas intensifying, Stith reminded the students of Yale's free speech policies, which bar any protest that "interferes with speakers' ability to be heard and of community members to listen." When the protesters heckled her in response—several with their middle fingers raised—she told them to "grow up," according to video of the event obtained by the Free Beacon.

The comment elicited jeers from the protesters, who began shouting at the panelists and insisting that the disturbance was "free speech." Eventually, Stith told them that if the noise continued, "I'm going to have to ask you to leave, or help you leave."

The protesters proceeded to exit the event—one of them yelled "Fuck you, FedSoc" on his way out—but congregated in the hall just outside. Then they began to stomp, shout, clap, sing, and pound the walls, making it difficult to hear the panel. Chants of "protect trans kids" and "shame, shame" reverberated throughout the law school. The din was so loud that it disrupted nearby classes, exams, and faculty meetings, according to students and a professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Ellen Cosgrove, the associate dean of the law school, was present at the panel the entire time. Though the cacophony clearly violated Yale's free speech policies, she did not confront any of the protesters.

At times, things seemed in danger of getting physical. The protesters were blocking the only exit from the event, and two members of the Federalist Society said they were grabbed and jostled as they attempted to leave.

"It was disturbing to witness law students whipped into a mindless frenzy," Waggoner said. "I did not feel it was safe to get out of the room without security."

As the panel concluded, police officers arrived to escort Waggoner and Miller out of the building. Three members of the Federalist Society say they were told that the Dean of Yale Law School, Heather Gerken, called the police, though the law school declined to comment on who asked for extra security. The Federalist Society did not call the police, the group's president confirmed.

Following the publication of this story, Yale Law School released a statement claiming that Yale police officers "were already on hand" when the panel got underway. According to the statement, "Yale Law School staff" spoke with the officers about "whether assistance might be needed" in the event that students didn’t stop making noise. "Fortunately," the statement claims, "that assistance was not needed and the event went forward until its conclusion."

The imbroglio is the latest controversy at the Ivy League law school, which has seen several speech-related scandals in just the past year. Last September, for example, Yale Law administrators spent weeks pressuring a student to apologize for a "triggering" party invitation that referred to his apartment as a "trap house." The episode cast a spotlight on the culture of Yale Law's diversity bureaucracy, which drew widespread criticism for chilling student speech.

The chaos at the panel shows that it's not just campus administrators who threaten free expression. At the nation's top law school, it is also the students themselves.

"If trap house illustrates the students-to-administration problem," a senior member of the Federalist Society said, "this illustrates the students-to-students problem."

In the two days following the panel, more than 60 percent of the law school's student body signed an open letter supporting the "peaceful student protesters," who they claimed had been imperiled by the presence of police.

"The danger of police violence in this country is intensified against Black LGBTQ people, and particularly Black trans people," the letter read. "Police-related trauma includes, but is certainly not limited to, physical harm. Even with all of the privilege afforded to us at YLS, the decision to allow police officers in as a response to the protest put YLS's queer student body at risk of harm."

Signed by 417 students, the letter also condemned Stith for telling the protesters to "grow up," and the Federalist Society for hosting the event, which "profoundly undermined our community's values of equity and inclusivity."

Stith declined to comment for this story.

It is unclear whether the letter's long list of signatures reflects genuine consensus or mass social pressure. In group chats, Discord posts, and emails reviewed by the Free Beacon, students sought to shame anyone who hadn't actively condemned the event.

"It feels wild to me that we're at this point in history and some folks are still not immediately signing a letter like this," one student wrote to her class GroupMe. "I'm sure you realize that not signing the letter is not a neutral stance."

Merely attending the panel was portrayed as an act of bigotry. Before the event got underway, activists littered the room with flyers denouncing everyone in the audience.

"Providing a veneer of respectability is part of what allows this group to do work that attacks the very lives of LGBTQ people in the U.S. & globally," the flyers read. "Through your attendance you are personally complicit, along with the Federalist Society, in platforming and legitimizing this hate group."

The "hate group" label was placed on ADF by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which says the group defends "the state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people." That accusation is based on a 2015 brief the ADF filed with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that EU member states should be allowed to make medical transition a prerequisite for changing one's legal gender. On its website, the Alliance Defending Freedom explicitly "condemns forced sterilization of any person."

The shaming campaign also targeted Stith and Miller, both of whom received their own open letters decrying their participation in the event.

The letter to Stith, which circulated on a law school-wide listserv, declared that "our protest was about you" and accused Stith of giving "a platform to ideas that deny our full personhood." The letter to Miller was signed by 150 law students, who emailed her before the panel urging her not to participate in it.

"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," the email said. "We urge you to withdraw from this event, which is little more than a thinly-disguised slap in the face to Yale Law's queer students and their allies."

Miller told the Free Beacon she was taken aback by the email—not least because the Supreme Court case she was speaking about had been hailed as a victory for civil rights groups.

The case, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, involved a public college in Georgia that prevented a Christian student, Chike Uzuegbunam, from proselytizing on campus. After he graduated, Uzuegbunam sued, saying his First Amendment rights had been violated.

At stake in the case was whether plaintiffs could sue over past constitutional violations that did not result in any economic harm. The 11th Circuit had answered no, setting a precedent that could foreclose a wide range of lawsuits—not just those related to free speech and free exercise, but also to civil rights.

"A lot of our clients are LGBT," Miller said. "If that ruling stood, and LGBT rights were violated in the South, we wouldn't be able to help them."

The American Humanist Association was one of several progressive groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, that filed amicus briefs in support of Uzuegbunam. But it was the Alliance Defending Freedom that actually argued the case before the Supreme Court, which ruled 8-1 in Uzuegbunam's favor.

Miller—who herself characterized the ADF as a "hate group" during the panel—said the disruption was an ominous sign for the legal profession.

"As lawyers, we have to put aside our differences and talk to opposing counsel," she told the Free Beacon. "If you can't talk to your opponents, you can’t be an effective advocate."

Waggoner was more blunt.

"Yale Law students are our future attorneys, judges, legislators, and corporate executives," she said. "We must change course and restore a culture of free speech and civil discourse at Yale and other law schools, or the future of the legal profession in America is in dire straits."

Update, March 18, 9:40 a.m.: This piece was updated with additional information from Yale Law School.

Update, April 1, 2:45 p.m.: Following the publication of this story, a new list of signatories to the student body's open letter was circulated. An updated version of the letter, which now boasts 435 signatories, can be found here.