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Yale Law School Axes Student Listserv That Energized Protests and Scandals

Ivy League law school will force students to write physical messages on a bulletin board after the listserv turned toxic

Yale Law dean Heather Gerken / Yale Law School, photo by Harold Shapiro
• July 28, 2022 12:15 pm

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After a year of high-profile scandals, Yale Law School is retiring an all-student listserv that became a breeding ground for progressive activism and online pile-ons, citing the value of "face-to-face" interaction.

If students want to "debate important questions," the dean of Yale Law School Heather Gerken announced in an email on Wednesday, they can post on a physical bulletin board in the law school’s hallway.

"Debate and dialogue are the touchstones of an academic institution," Gerken said. The new forum will force students to "take time to reflect before posting, a habit that lawyers and members of a scholarly community must practice."

Gerken’s announcement caps an annus horribilis for the Ivy League law school, which has seen near-nonstop scandals since 2021. The listserv played a role in many of those scandals: It facilitated a week-long pressure campaign against the Yale Law Journal over its alleged racism, as well as a public shaming campaign against Trent Colbert, the second-year law student who used the term "trap house" in an email. It also helped gin up outrage about a bipartisan panel on civil liberties hosted in March, which ended up needing police protection after hundreds of protesters disrupted the event.

"The listserv was a cesspool," said Zach Austin, who served as the president of the Yale Federalist Society this past year. "Dean Gerken’s rhetoric is spot on: I hope students, left and right alike, take it to heart."

The listserv’s demise comes just weeks after a controversial administrator, Ellen Cosgrove, retired from Yale Law School, prompting speculation that Gerken was taking steps to avoid a repeat of the scandal-filled year. Cosgrove, the law school’s associate dean, sat idly by while protesters disrupted the March panel. A few months earlier, she and another administrator pressured Colbert to apologize for his "trap house" email, an episode the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus likened to Mao’s cultural revolution.

As the scandals piled up, some students took to the listserv to bemoan the bad press—which only generated more of it. "What the actual fuck," Yale Law’s Asian-American student group posted in response to Marcus’s article, calling her Mao comparison "offensively racist." The post was one of several statements from the listserv highlighted in the Washington Free Beacon’s coverage of the trap-house saga, which kept the law school in the news for nearly a month.

These online dynamics are not unique to Yale. When the Federalist Society chapter at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law invited the conservative writer Josh Hammer to campus, the law school’s listserv devolved into profanity and public shaming.

"I’d be completely unsurprised (and in fact, willing to bet) that Joshie Hammer fucks (or at least tries to fuck—he probably was rejected repeatedly) we the trannies in his free time," one student emailed the listerv. "Or—more likely—he just wants (and needs) to get just fucked in the ass . . . Maybe our lovely, idiotic FedSoc board is experiencing a similar dilemma within their own psychosexual selves."

In the wake of such blowups, some law schools are scrapping their listservs altogether.

"Unsurprisingly, most of our peer schools no longer use listservs like these," Gerken said. "They deploy other, more focused means to share information on events and opportunities with the community."

The death of the listserv means the resurrection of an old Yale Law School tradition: In the days before email, students and faculty would post their views on a bulletin board, nicknamed the "Wall," in the law school’s main hallway. That system, which Yale Law School is bringing back, "provided a healthy reminder that human beings are on the receiving end of the messages people send," Gerken said. "Indeed, sometimes students would run into the very people with whom they were debating and speak face-to-face."

The listserv’s death has left Austin cautiously optimistic.

"I wouldn’t call it a square deal yet," he told the Free Beacon. "But if Gerken keeps leading like she has been this summer, then there’s a glimmer of hope that next year will be better for friends of free speech."

Published under: Free Speech, yale law school