Yale Law Professor Takes on Dean, Calls Disruption of Free Speech Event a ‘Blatant Violation’ of School Policy

Yale Law School students protest in March 2022
April 1, 2022

The Yale Law School professor who attempted to keep order as protesters disrupted a panel on free speech urged her colleagues in a Thursday letter to recognize the disruption as a "blatant violation of Yale’s Free Expression policy," a statement that contradicts conclusions reached by the law school's dean.

"This is an important moment," Professor Kate Stith said in a memo to all tenured faculty at the law school. "Any formal determination that the March protest at Yale Law School did not violate Yale’s policy on Free Expression would set a terrible precedent at Yale and elsewhere."

The memo came three days after Heather Gerken, the dean of the law school, suggested that the students who attempted to drown out the panel and made speakers fear for their safety hadn’t violated Yale’s free speech policies.

"Had the protesters shut down the event, our course of action would have been straightforward—the offending students without question would have been subject to discipline," Gerken told the law school Monday. But "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."

Much of Stith’s memo reads like a blow-by-blow refutation of Gerken. "Yale’s Free Expression policy does not only prohibit disruption that successfully shuts down an event or class," Stith said. "Rather, Yale’s policy prohibits 'disrupting' an event, including 'interfer[ing] with speakers' ability to be heard and of community members to listen.’"

"Limiting Yale’s policy to prohibit only 'shutting down' events would make no sense," she went on, because "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."

Furthermore, Stith noted, the protest did succeed in shutting down two events: a faculty meeting that had to be moved to Zoom, and a nearby class that couldn’t continue due to noise from the protest.

"As a former prosecutor, I know well that not every violation has to be an occasion for sanctions," Stith concluded, calling the fracas an "opportunity" to educate students about free speech. "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."

Stith became the target of the roughly 120 student protesters after she asked them to "grow up."

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