Yesterday, we published a post I wrote about the troubling state of civic life in today’s environment of identity politics. The same morning, Above the Law published a piece that illustrates the follies of tribalism I intended to condemn in my post. In what is either an attempt to create controversial click-bait or simply a disingenuous attempt to generate news, Above the Law’s Joe Patrice is at it again.
Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to a group of students at my alma mater, Georgetown Law. As neither Mr. Patrice nor the majority of his readers attended Georgetown, I would like to highlight some significant details missing from his latest tabloid piece about the event, “Law School Snowflakes Demand Safe Space Over Jeff Sessions Talk: Obviously we’re talking about the conservative law professor here.”
At any rate, despite all the commotion, the way the event went down earlier today demonstrates that “free speech is alive and well at Georgetown Law.” The event appears to have passed without significant interruption and the protestors peacefully voiced their objections and gathered on the steps of McDonough Hall. Although we will always have disagreement in our country, it is crucial that we pay attention to how we disagree.
Free speech alive and well @GeorgetownLaw. pic.twitter.com/nvZaawRe81
— Laura K. Donohue (@Laura_K_Donohue) September 26, 2017
In his piece, Mr. Patrice criticizes the event, the Center for the Constitution, and Professor Randy Barnett for several things. First, he writes that it is “a little awkward [that] the announcement that all questions of the man in charge of the federal justice system would be pre-screened by Professor Randy Barnett.”
As a recent comparison, Georgetown Law also pre-screened (and selected) all of the questions to the 2017 graduating class lecturer, John Podesta. (As evidence, here is the form the school used to collect questions ahead of time, which were read aloud by the Dean.) Now, I may be wrong, but I don’t recall Mr. Patrice writing about the event with Mr. Podesta in a similar light as his Sessions hit-piece. He certainly never wrote of Podesta’s speech procedures, “this reads like they’re setting up an antiseptic propaganda set piece.” I would submit it is more of an antiseptic propaganda set piece for the school to host a failed Democratic candidate’s former campaign chairman and now-Chair of the very-leftist Center for American Progress as a graduating class lecture. But I attended the event, listened to what he had to say, and endured the many politically charged comments that would never have been tolerated from the mouth of a right-leaning counterpart.
Mr. Patrice also writes, “[m]aybe there are some half-hearted defenses of ‘protecting the Attorney General’s time,’ an excuse easily solved by putting a hard cap on the question-and-answer period.” Certainly true, but also a little risky given the fact that other professors at Georgetown Law are quite literally organizing and calling for protests of Attorney General Sessions without ever hearing a word he has to say. And again, the pre-screened question method seems to rely on Georgetown’s faculty not eliminating questions just because they are awkward or difficult. So it was for Podesta.
Should I have protested the appearance of our graduation lecture by Podesta? I attended and listened. https://t.co/f8uwJSg3xn
— Rob Barthelmess (@r_barthelmess) September 25, 2017
I also often disagree with AG Sessions, but isn’t this a fantastic opportunity to engage in civil discourse and listen to his ideas? https://t.co/76qO79m0R9
— Rob Barthelmess (@r_barthelmess) September 25, 2017
I took two courses with Professor Barnett during my 3L year at Georgetown. In both, he always welcomed dissent, and students often voiced an opposing view. He, like many other professors I had at Georgetown – the left-leaning included – presented multiple perspectives and welcomed discussion. (Besides, anyone familiar with Professor Barnett’s work may spot the fact that he probably disagrees with AG Sessions on quite a lot – one may recall that Professor Randy Barnett argued Gonzales v. Raich.)
Next, Mr. Patrice is perturbed by the invitation-only forum; “[h]ours after a number of our tipsters secured seats for the event, they were purged from the guest list to guarantee an even more intellectually cloistered audience.”
Mr. Patrice’s tipsters appear to have ignored nearly every school broadcast, flyer, and on-campus event involving the student-fellow-based Center for the Constitution. As the Center stated in their email, “Our records indicate that you were not part of the Center’s student invitation list, which includes student fellows of the Center…” The Center for the Constitution holds at least one high-profile event each year at the Supreme Court itself. But because many students at the school would sign up for such an event despite not being a student fellow, the Center makes such events by invitation only – or, rather, the Center invites those who have attended a specified number of events hosted by the Center throughout the year.
The “Student Fellows” program is public, and students are invited throughout the year to nearly every event. Look, as it says on the website itself:
Membership in the Student Fellows Program provides special access to activities such as lunchtime conversations with the nation’s leading experts on constitutional law, discussions with authors in a Recent Books on the Constitution series, and private meetings with speakers prior to co-sponsored Center events.
To become a Student Fellow, students are required to attend three Center-sponsored events annually. As a member of the Student Fellows Program, students are invited to attend the Center’s annual Salmon P. Chase Lecture at the United States Supreme Court.
Be careful when you rely on the complaints of these “tipsters,” Mr. Patrice. They seem to have ignored some invitations.
Mr. Patrice goes on to state how this whole dilemma “reinforces how conservatives really feel about free speech.” He writes, “Only one side gets an official blessing and the inevitable protesters are cast as the bad eggs that really need to learn to keep their mouths properly shut in the face of power.”
The article makes it sound as though some massive conservative power holds the reins to Georgetown law when, in reality, the opposite is the case. Let us not forget Scaliagate, which Mr. Patrice’s own publication reported on just last year.
It is of course true that some students are excited to attend an event at their law school featuring the current United States Attorney General, despite the overwhelming majority of their classmates shaming them.
As Mr. Patrice would see elsewhere online, one student boldly posted on the class Facebook page asking whether students are “supposed to bring [their] own tiki torch [a reference to the Charlottesville march by white supremacists] to the Jeff Sessions talk tomorrow, or will Randy B. be handing ‘m out at the door?” Replies to the thread are outraged that they had not heard about the event, but one jumps in to correct them, stating an email went out earlier. The original commenter then writes “whoever can hold their hitler salute the longest will get in.”
Mr. Patrice’s ill-informed, but run-of-the-mill, attack piece degrades serious civil discourse. It is the kind of thing we have come to expect from much of the media, but not from serious legal publications. Instead, as the student protestors seem to have done, a better way to voice opposition to AG Sessions would be to explain the reasons for disagreeing with his policies rather than implying those who desire to host or attend his lectures are nothing more than modern-day Nazis.
Added 9/27 at 10:34 EST: But the misinformed uproar about question-screening misses the bigger point entirely… Attorney General Sessions was talking about protests that literally keep people and their ideas from being heard on campuses. The screening of questions can only happen if the speaker makes it to campus. This trending false equivalency simply reveals the critics’ utter inability to grasp the fundamental issue facing conservative speakers and students on campuses across America today.