By Patrick Gregory, Bloomberg BNA
An immigration debate at Seattle University School of Law is the latest front for the hot-button issue of campus speech rights.
The controversy comes on the heels of the Department of Justice’s decision to take an active role in protecting campus free speech, and a Black Lives Matter protest that shut down an American Civil Liberties Union free speech event at the College of William and Mary Oct. 4.
There have been several events canceled or disrupted this year on college campuses due to protests over the viewpoints presented, including events canceled at University of California Berkeley that featured conservative figures Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro. For the most part, these speech controversies haven’t hit law schools.
At Seattle University’s law school, a Change.org petition purportedly signed by over 200 individuals is asking the school to cancel the Oct. 16debate, which is being hosted by the school’s Federalist Society chapter.
The event, “an immigration debate primarily focused on” the deferred action for childhood arrivals program, was to be co-hosted by the school’s Access to Justice Institute as part of its “Social Justice Monday” series, Thomas Reinhard—who is the Federalist Society chapter president and a student at the law school—told Bloomberg BNA by phone Oct. 5.
DACA is an Obama administration program, recently rescinded by the Trump administration, that deferred deportation for some 800,000 immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally when they were children.
“Our school does a lot of work in its recruitment and its programming trying to support students in marginalized communities,” Destinee Evers, a second-year law student who signed the petition, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 6.
It “really concerned me that we would be potentially supporting an event that would create dialogue that might make some of those students unsafe or unwelcome,” she said.
Reinhard said he’s “1000%” certain the petition caused ATJI’s withdrawal. ATJI describes itself as a “home for pro bono, public interest, and social justice activities” and is affiliated with the law school.
As “a result of our discussions with students, alumni, and faculty,” the event will “go forward under the sole sponsorship of the Federalist Society,” school dean Annette Clark said in an email to students Oct. 5.
The petition has “been up for about a week” and initially contained a “big, long diatribe about how the Federalist Society is a xenophobic organization,” Reinhard, who sent a purported screenshot of the original language to Bloomberg BNA, said. That language has since been removed from the petition.
The petition page says an update is forthcoming.
“AG Sessions is 100 percent correct” concerning the First Amendment problems on college campuses, Reinhard said in a follow-up email. “It is a MAJOR problem.”
The school “miscalculated and erred” in planning to have ATJI co-sponsor the event for two reasons, Clark said.
First, the Trump administration’s announced intent “to rescind DACA” has “generated great fear within vulnerable immigrant communities and has caused real harm, making discussions of immigration policy that include a conservative viewpoint even more painful and anxiety- and anger-producing for those individuals and families who are at risk (and for their allies),” Clark said.
“In other words, we should have taken into account the historical moment in which this program was going to be presented as a Social Justice Monday and what that would mean to marginalized individuals in our community,” Clark said.
Second, “because Social Justice Mondays have traditionally been led by the voices of marginalized students, we should have included them in discussions about why we felt this program was appropriate to be under the auspices of a Social Justice Monday, and we should have reached a decision about its appropriateness together,” Clark said.
Tahmina Watson of Watson Immigration Law, Seattle, was scheduled to participate but withdrew, she told Bloomberg BNA by email Oct. 5.
“My understanding is that the university has withdrawn its support,” Watson, who represents immigrants, said. “The petition did not affect my decision,” she said.
“While the Access to Justice Institute is no longer sponsoring the program, it does not indicate University withdrawal,” Tina Ching, communications director for the school, told Bloomberg BNA by email Oct. 5.
It’s “an appropriate program to be held at our law school under the sponsorship of the student organization,” and students “who object have the opportunity to advocate on behalf of their viewpoints, as is appropriate for students who are training to be lawyers,” Ching said.
The screenshot provided by Reinhart indicated that the individuals behind the petition feared there would be hateful rhetoric about immigrants at the forum.
The Seattle University School of Law Direct Action Committee is listed as the petition’s organizer and couldn’t be reached for comment.
While the petitioners allegedly feared hateful rhetoric, they didn’t “even known who the panelists” would be, Reinhard said.
ATJI asked the Federalist Society “to let them handle the advertising,” but didn’t advertise the event due to the petition, Reinhard said.
The panelists include Stuart Verdery of the Monument Policy Group, Washington, which describes itself as a bipartisan policy firm. He was counsel to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and worked as a congressional aide to former Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.). A source speaking on background who is familiar with Verdery’s work described Verdery as having a “long record of being for comprehensive immigration reform.”
Joining Verdery will be Matt Adams, Legal Director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which provides legal services and advocacy on behalf of immigrants. Both support “a path to citizenship for DACA recipients,” according to the Federalist Society’s description of the event quoted by Clark’s email to students.
Debate Discussion Planned
In “anticipation that students will want an opportunity to come together to express their views” on the school’s decision, the school’s student bar association has scheduled a forum for Oct. 19, Clark said.
It’s “a difficult task to hold in tension our care and support and valuing of all students, the creation of an inclusive environment in which students feel safe and as free from harm as possible, and one in which free expression is encouraged and valued,” Clark said.
“I understand that many of you will disagree with how I have balanced the differing interests of our students and our responsibilities as an educational institution,” she said.
An email to ATJI’s official account requesting comment wasn’t returned.
Updated to add comments from student who signed the petition.