Students at CUNY Law Protested and Heckled My Lecture about Free Speech on Campus

Josh Blackman, Josh Blackman’s Blog, April 12, 2018

On Thursday, March 29, students at CUNY Law protested and heckled my lecture about free speech on campus. You can watch video of the entire event, which lasted about seventy minutes, here. The protest and heckling took place during the first eight minutes of the recording.

In this post, I will recount the events that led up to the protest, and describe my experiences during the encounter. In future writings, I will provide my own commentary on this event. Here, I will try to lay out the facts to the best of my recollection, aided by the (sometime) inaudible recording.

In October, the CUNY School of Law Federalist Society invited me to speak on a panel discussion about theories of constitutional interpretation. I had planned to speak about originalism. Alas, the students were not able to find any other professors who were willing to participate in the event. After several rounds of emails, I suggested an event about free speech on campus. {snip} Alas, once again, the Chapter was unable to find any other professor who would participate in the event. {snip}

Three days before the event, the President of the Chapter wrote, “We passed out the flyers today (first day back from spring break) and a large number of students are already up in arms about the event.” {snip}

The President provided an explanation:

These students saw first, that this is a Federalist Society event; and second, they saw a few of your writings (specifically a National Review article praising Sessions for rescinding DACA and ACA), and instantly assume you’re racist; and third, our event being titled about free speech is reminiscent of events that claim free speech just to invite people like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter.

He explained that “we have the support of the administration” and the event would proceed as scheduled.

Hours before the event began, Mary Lu Bilek, the Dean of CUNY Law, sent an email to all students:

As a law school, a public institution, and a school within the CUNY system, we are committed to academic freedom, the free exchange of ideas, and expression of all points of view, including the freedom to disagree with the viewpoints of others.

University policy provides guidelines for how to express disagreement lawfully (including through demonstrations), defines prohibited conduct, and details the procedure for handling disruptive demonstrations at CUNY facilities.  Many of us witnessed a demonstration here earlier this year, which is an example of expressive conduct that does not run afoul of any University policy.

We attach a copy of the University’s policies and rules, including those covering the processes for dealing with student and employee prohibited conduct.

She attached CUNY’s Policy on Freedom of Expression and Expressive Conduct.

A few moments later, a member of the CUNY community tweeted, “Only at the ‘nation’s premier public interest law school’ does the Dean send an email about CUNY limits on protest shortly after a conservative student org (Federalist Society) sends a reminder about the vile speaker (Justin [sic] Blackman) that they’re bringing to campus.”

{snip}

The video, which is posted [below], illustrates the scene as I entered the classroom. Several dozen students (I will leave the count to others) held up signs and chanted “shame on you,” booed, and hissed.

{snip}

A student shouted out “Fuck the law.” This comment stunned me. I replied, “Fuck the law? That’s a very odd thing. You are all in law school. And it is a bizarre thing to say fuck the law when you are in law school.” They all started to yell and shout over me.

{snip}

A student, looking at the very few number of people in attendance, said “Look how many of us and how many of them there are.” I replied, “I am actually very impressed, let me say this, I am actually impressed that there are so many of you. You could be anywhere right now, and you chose to come out here and exercise your constitutional rights. You want to exercise your rights. And I’ll do to do the same.”

Then, the dialogue shifted to the back of the room. The African-American student I mentioned earlier said, “I don’t support this guy” but “I want to hear him speak.” The protestors tried to shame him for attending. He continued, “I want to ask him a very hard question. And we should all try to ask him very hard questions. Like about the notion of legal objectivity.” Sensing the event had taken a different direction, I said, “Let’s talk about that.” The protestors then heckled and shouted over the student asking the question. I interjected, “let him talk, let him talk.” After the protest died down, he said “I respect the fact that you have a right to speak, and you came here. I do not support anything you are writing or your politics, but I do respect the fact that we can have a dialogue and ask some tough questions.”

{snip}

Indeed, though there were only five people at the start of the event, by the time it concluded, I counted about 30 people. I learned that some students were either ashamed, or intimidated, and did not want to be seen as attending the event. A number of students thanked me after the event, and explained that conservative speech is stifled on campus not by the faculty, but by the students. The students swarm on anyone who does not toe the progressive line.

{snip}

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