Conservative Group at U. Chicago School of Law Under Fire for Immigration Event

The Edmund Burke Society has indefinitely postponed its event

University of Chicago Law School
University of Chicago Law School / Wikimedia Commons
February 7, 2018

A conservative debate society at the University of Chicago School of Law faced threats of defunding this week after announcing an immigration debate with language that some students found racist.

The Edmund Burke Society was hit with a barrage of criticism from both students and administrators following the release of a whip sheet on Jan. 30 that described immigrants as "inviting disease into the body politic," as well as "wretched refuse," language originating in the Statue of Liberty sonnet by Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus.

The whip sheet used the term "chain migration," referenced Trump's campaign promise to build a southern-border wall, and suggested the country will be "on the path to national suicide" if subcultures fail to assimilate.

Titled "Resolved: Raise the Bar," the event was centered around debate of the immigration reform RAISE Act introduced last year to the Senate.

The whip sheet was meant to provoke relevant discussion with language meant to be humorous, said the Society. The document was not representative of the Burke Society's views, added the group.

The Burke Society has indefinitely postponed the event, scheduled for earlier this week, citing a "high risk of serious disturbance."

Since the whip sheet's publication, campus backlash has been fierce.

In an op-ed published by the Chicago Maroon, a student smeared the Burke Society as "the place for racists to convene and mock minority groups with full impunity."

"Dear Burke Society, I take it personally when you compare my family to trash and disease," wrote another student, according to the Maroon.

At an "emotional" town hall Monday, more than a hundred students, faculty, and staff aired their feelings about the document, the student paper reported.

At that meeting, Burke Society Chairman Eric Wessan apologized to the community for a parody gone wrong.

Wessan explained the whip sheet "employs hyperbolic language that parodies arguments conservatives or commentators might make" to "stimulate interest."

Wessan said that he wished the Society "had not done this," expressed regret that his classmates had been hurt by the language, and promised "to be more deliberate" with their language in the future.

Chicago Law dean Thomas J. Miles issued an initial response Monday in a campus-wide email that mourned an injured campus, but reaffirmed the university's commitment to free expression, even "uncivil" speech.

The Law Students Association president, Sean Planchard, responded by announcing his intention to submit a resolution Thursday to defund and deactivate the society.

In the face of "the abdication of leadership from the administration in response to the vile rhetoric of the Edmund Burke Society," Planchard said he and the LSA must step in to dole out punishment.

Miles replied Wednesday to the LSA's threat with an email warning that the Society "did not violate any university policies" and clarified the school's prohibition of retributory action taken against student organizations "on the basis of their speech."

Miles added that the LSA does not have the ability to unilaterally defund or deactivate student groups, but offered to discuss the development of such mechanisms.

Few have defended the Burke Society. Among those who have is law professor Todd Henderson, a self-described liberal who was to give the pro-immigration side at the debate, who said at the town hall that those who have taken offense are humorless.

The whip sheet was "merely mimicking the orangutan that is our president," said Henderson, according to the Maroon.

This week's uproar came as the university has faced heavy backlash over allowing an immigration conversation featuring Steve Bannon to go forward. The business school professor behind the invite held a town hall Monday to express his position that there is a difference between hateful speech or beliefs and violence, and to say that the Bannon event would give students the opportunity to confront him.