The shouting down of Christina Hoff Sommers by students at Lewis and Clark law school during a talk on her brand of feminism has renewed concern about freedom of expression in academic settings.
Protesters who disrupted Sommers’ March 5 appearance at an event sponsored by the conservative legal group the Federalist Society should face school and bar discipline, one scholar told Bloomberg Law. Another said their tactics only amplified her ideas, which they opposed.
“I think there’s always a tough balance to be drawn between the right of speakers to speak and the right of students to protest,” Tung Yin, a professor at the private Portland, Ore., school who attended the event told Bloomberg Law.
The Lewis and Clark incident is one of many controversies involving events hosted by conservative groups that were canceled or disrupted on college and law school campuses. Law schools have not had as many incidents as other campuses, but some Federalist Society events have become a venue for politically charged disputes over speech.
Seattle University law school revoked its co-sponsorship of an immigration discussion in October hosted by its chapter of the Federalist Society. Texas Southern University law school soon after canceled a Federalist Society event that was to feature a conservative state representative.
Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit conservative-leaning think tank, articulates what she calls a “factual feminism” that critiques contemporary feminism. For instance, she challenges the gender wage gap and claims about the prevalence of sex assault on college campuses.
Her lecture, “The Closing of the Feminist Mind,” was “an argument for a more judicious, inclusive, freedom-centered feminism,” Sommers told Bloomberg Law by email.
At least some of the protesters who interrupted her talk were law students, according to Yin.
They chanted that “rape culture is not a myth” and that the gender wage gap “is real,” in a video uploaded to YouTube. They also sang “no platform for fascists.”
Janet Steverson, a law professor and dean of diversity and inclusion at the school, asked Sommers to “wrap up” her speech “a couple of” times, Yin said.
Sommers said that she was able to give half of her speech, and that most of the student attendees, including progressives, were civil.
But she complained in a tweet about Steverson’s interference and said she was “never able to develop” her argument.
The speech was intended “to show that there was too little intellectual diversity in gender studies,” and that the “lack of balance has been harmful to the field” and “students who take it too seriously,” Sommers said.
“The censorious protesters who shouted me down could be Exhibit A for my thesis,” Sommers said.
She told Bloomberg Law that she is a registered Democrat and a moderate “libertarian feminist.”
First Amendment on Campus
Lewis and Clark, a private school, isn’t subject to the same First Amendment restrictions as public universities. But disputes over speakers involve similar “notions of academic freedom,” Yin said.
The school chooses to honor First Amendment principles because it is the “bedrock of democracy,” Steverson, who is also a law professor, told Bloomberg Law by telephone.
Steverson said she asked Sommers to take questions before her speech ended because the allotted time for the event was running out.
Students were eager to ask questions, and the school had been told that there would be an opportunity for them to do so, Steverson said.
Steverson said she asked protestors to let Sommers “finish her remarks” so that students could ask questions.
Steverson also helped Sommers by removing a device that protesters were using to disrupt the speech with “really loud music,” she said.
Steverson said she expects that disruptive protesters will be disciplined because they were told not to disrupt Sommers’ speech, though signs were permitted.
That decision is up to the school’s head dean, and any disciplinary action will be confidential, Steverson said.
Though the protesters violated school policy, “I can empathize with the emotion that led them to disobey” because some students have faced sexual assault, she said.
If any law students attempted to shout down Sommers, they “should be disciplined and reported to the bar,” Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law, Houston, who often speaks at Federalist Society events, told Bloomberg Law by telephone.
“The people who are in law schools today are being groomed and trained to be the next generation of lawyers and judges,” and schools should protect the “bedrock principle” of free speech, he said.
“I cringe” at what sort of First Amendment rulings such future judges might make if they don’t learn to respect freedom of speech, Blackman said.
All universities and colleges have a “moral obligation” to take the issue seriously, he said.
Allowing a “heckler” to shut down one speech will result in more speakers being shouted down, Blackman said.
“It was dismaying to see law students act like that,” Sommers said.
“Have they taken Con Law?” she asked. “Seems not.”
Speech vs. Marginalization
Steverson said she’s researching whether allowing certain groups to speak ends up devaluing marginalized individuals.
Some students feel that “it’s all well and good to have this absolutism with regard to free speech,” she said. But that “doesn’t take into account the reality of different lived experiences and different power dynamics.”
“It’s one thing for people that have been privileged all their life to debate each other on the same footing,” she said.
“It’s another thing when those power dynamics are different, and that I don’t have an answer to,” Steverson said. “But that’s what I’m exploring, and that’s what students are trying to say.”
Sommers’ appearance divided students, but the school chapter of the progressive American Constitution Society agreed with the Federalist Society that she should have been permitted to speak freely.
The chapter opposed calls to rescind Sommers’ invitation and said it supported free speech on campus, in a tweet.
Elizabeth A. Davis, the school’s associate dean of student affairs, said she hoped the event would be “an example of how we wrestle, peacefully, with ideas in the public sphere,” in an email to students obtained by Bloomberg Law.
Some students at the event who disagreed with Sommers but weren’t protesting were able to engage her civilly and respectfully, and thanked her for speaking, Yin said.
The students who spoke with Sommers instead of shouting at her “made me proud as a professor,” he said.
That’s an example of the professionalism that law students should model, he said.
Advice to Protesters
A better strategy for the protesters would have been to ignore the speech, Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, told Bloomberg Law by telephone.
“I really had no idea who” Sommers was before the incident, but “now I know a lot more about her,” which shows that the protests were counterproductive, he said.
Further, a “heckler’s veto” is “something that would worry me as someone who’s generally progressive” in particular, he said.
“I think about times” that pro-LGBT rights speakers could have been shouted down because they weren’t in line with the majority, he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick L. Gregory in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at firstname.lastname@example.org