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Political Persecution at Northwestern Law School in 2007

February 12th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

 Free Speech Scandal at Northwestern Law School.  [I have redacted using the name X]

Yet another example (from 2007) of a law school punishing unorthodox speech. Or, perhaps, for not giving patronage to minorities in this case. It’s curious how law schools, with their worship of the abstract concept of Free Speech, so commonly suppress it.

There is a useful thread of emails posted. From Student Bar Association President X, who was intimidated into resigning:

I have only resigned my title because the administration and the SBA Executive Board have forced my hand. The SBA Executive Board and school administration asked me to step down as SBA President with only a month left in my tenure, largely because I have expressed beliefs that are unpopular with some members of our community. Some think that my expression of these beliefs makes me unfit to perform the duties of my office. I disagree with those who have asked me to step down, and initially refused; offering instead to accept a dramatically reduced role in the SBA’s decision making process in recognition of the impact of my expression of these beliefs. The administration and Executive Board did not accept my offer. I was told that if I did not step down the administration would have stripped me of any official duty that it could strip me of – they would cease meeting with me as SBA President, and would have prohibited me from representing the school at graduation, law board meetings, admitted student weekend, and other events where the SBA President traditionally plays a role. In addition, the administration would have released a letter to the public explaining these restrictions – and describing my words (discussed below) as “derogatory remarks.” Cliff Zimmerman [faculty administrator] showed me two different versions of this letter; the version to be released if I stepped down being significantly kinder in its wording. The administration reached its conclusion to take this course of action without once bringing me, the Executive Board, administration members, and complaining parties into the same room. Finally, the Executive Board would have conducted a plebiscite on whether I was fit to hold what would have been left of the office of SBA President – the title. Given the costs of going through with this process, it should be clear that I have only “stepped down” from my position in the most technical sense.

To provide some background: There was a breakfast last Thursday with Chief Justice Roberts to which a number of academic and student-government leaders were invited. The administration asked me to recommend a list of 10-15 “academic and community leaders” to attend this breakfast. The administration had the final word on the invitees; this should be obvious given the nature of the event, the addition of 10 students to my initial recommendations, and the fact that my recommendations had to be cleared with the administration. I was never told that the intent was to invite the leaders of every student organization. The students at that breakfast were an undeniably diverse cross-section of the Northwestern Law community. These students were invited not as racial representatives, but because of their leadership on the law journals, in student government, and in student organizations with leadership positions open to members of any ethnicity. Nonetheless, the leader of one of the ethnicity-oriented student groups – a person I have always considered a friend – shouted me down in the Atrium for overlooking the leaders of these groups. He told me that I took the opportunity of a lifetime away from him. I should have walked away. I had been up the better part of the previous evening and early morning answering student complaints about the invitation list, and had continued to field such complaints throughout the day. During what can only be described loosely as a conversation, I stated my belief that our community would be better off if all student organizations were organized around ideas, and not ethnicity. It is this off-hand remark that is the primary justification for my being forced from office.

I’ve omitted the rest of his email, which consists of musings about free speech and grovelling humbly for having dared to question the orthodox position.

The postscript is useful, though:

* The complete list of students that I recommended for the breakfast: The SBA Executive Board and 1L Rep, Law Review board members, 2 Editors-in- Chief of academic journals, Federalist Society President, Fed Soc Board Member who has been exceptionally active on SBA Committees and in SFPIF, ACS President, STMS President. After two students responded that they could not attend, and in response to concerns that only two 1Ls were included in a group of 28, I recommended two 1Ls active on SBA and in student organizations. Of my 18 recommendations, at least 6 were of diverse ethnic background. The administration approved ALL of these recommendations in addition to inviting at least 10 students without my recommendation.

The “ person I have always considered a friend” who got X in trouble is unrepentant about doing so, and still miffed that he didn’t get to have lunch with the judge. He is Latino group leader Kevin Strom:

X,

I’m saddened by your comments. You and I both know that is not why I was upset about the invite list. I did not say that you took an opportunity of a lifetime away from me. I said, while describing the impact of your decision, that it was not a small event, that it was the chance of a lifetime for anyone to go. I wrote down the conversation you and I had shortly after we had it, simply because I knew this might come up, and then I confirmed it with a respected 3L who was standing by during our conversation.

Here is what I have:

After Chief Justice Robert’s speech to the general student body Thursday, the President of the SBA approached me during the reception. He was unaware of many of the complaints and meetings that he had sparked. He was unaware that I, and many others had spent the majority of the day with Cliff and Audra because his actions were a reflection of the administration. He asked me how I was doing. I said, “fine.” He asked if I was sure, because I seemed upset. I told him that was probably not the best place and time to have this discussion. When he pushed on, I told him that I believed the way he handled the selection of “relevant student leaders” was ridiculous and unacceptable. He defended his actions saying that he chose the most relevant groups based on who would impress CJR. He said it didn’t matter because “we impressed him” and the breakfast went fine. I asked how he could ignore a group like BLSA, during Black History Month, with such a huge student base, and an entire month’s worth of programming. I asked him how he could ignore LLSA, another group with a month of programming that won Best Student Group of the Year last year, how we could be less relevant.

His response blew me away:

“I would dismantle all of your groups. If it were up to me there would be no LLSA, BLSA, Salsa and Apalsa, because they don’t bring anything to the community, and they contribute to racial identity politics.” He kept going, telling me that he doesn’t get caught up in racial politics and doesn’t believe in race based groups.

I responded by telling him he was doing a *’super’* job of representing the students he was elected to serve. I told him he couldn’t separate his political views from his Presidential role, and those views shouldn’t affect the decisions he makes on behalf of us. This is especially true when the administration makes the error of allowing one student to make unilateral decisions as to who should attend an intimate breakfast with a figure such as the Chief Justice of the U.S.

To the student body: That is what happened between X and I the night the Chief Justice spoke to the student body. I was not going to publish this information to the listserv, if you’ve seen my personal email to the Latino Law Student Association, you know that I toned down my words and paraphrased X when describing what transpired. I’ve included that email below. Obviously the administration and SBA felt that this, along with X’s other actions in the past month warranted removing him from the board, or at least stripping his ability to speak at any events. I’m available to answer any questions.

Sincerely,

Kevin Strom

The SBA student leadership wanted to fire X too, even without faculty pressure perhaps:

In light of recent events at Northwestern Law, the SBA Executive Board has asked X to step down from his role as SBA President, and he has agreed to do so, effective immediately. … Let’s hope that we all learn from recent events and continue to strive to make our law school more accepting and more open.

Dean David Van Zandt and administrators Cliff Zimmerman, Audra Wilson, and Don Rebstock wrote a letter about “Xs decision to resign”:

Dear Students,

… Student groups are given great latitude to create programming and opportunities for their respective constituencies and the community as a whole; students are also given wide latitude and responsibility to pursue these activities with the support of, rather than intervention by, the Law School. However, when actions undermine the Law School’s mission or values or cause harm, the Law School must weigh the value of student autonomy and responsibility against the necessity to counter those actions that compromise our efforts to maintain a diverse, collegial, and supportive community.

We have investigated the chain of events which led to the omission of several student group leaders from last week’s Student Leadership Breakfast with Chief Justice John Roberts. While part of the problem was administrative in nature, that mistake has been overshadowed by X subsequent comments that dismissed the value of the organizations of the uninvited leaders. Having acknowledged the serious affront to the student leaders in his comments,Xs decision to resign is the right one for himself, for the SBA, and for the Law School.

The student newspaper has the Administration claiming it had not “played any role” in forcing X to resign:

Both Dean Zimmerman and Director Wilson denied that the Administration played any role in forcing Mr. X to resign. Dean Zimmerman said that he simply informed Mr. X that he would not be asked to speak as a representative of the school. Although historically the SBA president has spoken to the Law Board, at Diverse Admit day, at Day at Northwestern, and at Graduation, these speaking opportunities are at the discretion of the administration….

Although Director Wilson and Dean Zimmerman both admitted that the substance of Mr. X’s comments warranted further discussion, neither was yet sure how.

“We need to move forward together in a constructive way,” said Zimmerman. “But I am still talking with several groups, both student and administration, about how best to address this issue.”

“If we can’t have candid talks about race and ethnicity, our commitment to diversity is hollow,” Wilson said. “But we need to have the discussion with civility and tact.”

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