Colleges and universities should be places where civil debate can thrive. When students from different backgrounds, political persuasions, and religions gather, everyone should be able to share their opinions and beliefs, even when they disagree. Especially when they disagree.
Freedom of expression is even more important at law schools, which are supposed to be training the next generation of attorneys to advocate civilly and persuasively. Sadly, the dean of Yale Law School, widely known as one of the top law schools in the nation, has not ensured free speech for everyone during her tenure. And the university is considering the dean for its next president.
Yale dean’s controversial tenure
According to The Washington Free Beacon, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken is a candidate to be the next president of Yale University. Gerken has served as the dean of the law school since 2018, and her tenure has been marred by censorship and controversy.
Gerken was the dean in March 2022 when Alliance Defending Freedom CEO, President, and General Counsel Kristen Waggoner visited Yale Law School to speak at an event about free speech. Kristen was supposed to speak alongside Monica Miller of the American Humanist Association.
ADF and the American Humanist Association stand at odds in many ways. At ADF, our goal is to “keep the door open for the Gospel,” while the American Humanist Association is an atheist group. But these two women were willing to come together to find common ground on the importance of free speech.
Unfortunately, the event was disrupted by an unruly mob who shouted down and physically intimidated the speakers. The mob became so disruptive that Kristen and Monica had to be escorted out to a patrol car by law enforcement.
Even though Yale’s free speech policy says that students “may not interfere with a speaker’s ability to speak or attendees’ ability to attend, listen and hear,” Gerken took no action against the students who disrupted the event. (Thankfully, Kristen was able to return to Yale the next year and speak without incident.)
The Federalist Society event was just one example of Gerken’s hostility to free speech. In 2021, the dean faced criticism after law school administrators threatened to punish a student for jokingly referring to his apartment as a “trap house” (a slang term for a house where illegal drugs are sold). The administrators accused the student, who was a member of the conservative Federalist Society, of “triggering” other students. They also said some students “feel like FedSoc belongs to political affiliations that are oppressive to certain communities."
The administrators suggested it would be in the student’s best interest to send an apology email that they had drafted for him and reminded him that “there’s a bar you have to take.” Some bar exams, including the New York State Bar, ask law schools to disclose any “discreditable information” that might reflect poorly on an “applicant’s character.”
The Free Beacon outlines more of Gerken’s anti-free speech behavior, but the examples above are more than enough to show that the dean’s tenure has not been characterized by a commitment to free speech.
Yale’s next president must be dedicated to defending free speech on campus
Colleges and universities, the training grounds for many of our nation’s future leaders, have the duty to preserve a culture of free speech in our country. That culture begins on campus.
That’s why Yale needs a president who will foster the civil and open exchange of ideas, who will stand against censorship.
As former Harvard President Claudine Gay’s resignation reminds us, even powerful leaders at Ivy League universities are not immune from consequences for their actions. In Gerken’s case, her actions—and inaction—have shown a blatant disregard for the value of free speech. Yale University must do better.