Law school protests spark mass response nationwide

Photo by Hanna Merzbach

By Mackenzie Herring

Lewis & Clark’s Law school hosted a contentious lecture by Christina Hoff Sommers, recognized for her disapproval of aspects of contemporary feminism. The March 5 event was sponsored by the LC Federalist Society chapter but received much opposition. Sommers drew criticism from many students organizations who protested both inside and outside the venue.

Protesters called Sommers a “known fascist” and denounced her views on rape and gender identity.

Sommers’ Twitter account detailed the protests at the Law School event, garnering national attention and press in publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Examiner and the Atlantic.

Various Law School organizations sent out a joint email to law students condemning the event.

“We have recently become aware of a troubling event being held within the confines of our community,” the email said. “Under the guise of ‘open debate’ and ‘free discourse,’ the Federalist Society found it necessary to unilaterally invite a known fascist to our campus to encourage what we believe to be an act of aggression and violence toward members of our society who experience racial and gendered oppression.”

This event adds to LC’s recent history of hosting controversial speakers on campus. Last year’s International Affairs Symposium invited Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies Jessica Vaughan. Students and members of the community who disagreed with her views on immigration protested her speaking. On response to the symposium, debates discussing the limitations of free speech quickly spread across campus.

Due to high attendance at the event on the Law campus, many people were turned away at the entrance; the venue quickly reached its capacity of 84 people. The event was also closed to the public due to potential safety concerns. Members of Campus Safety and college administrators checked IDs at the door.

Some protesters who were not allowed into the room chanted and sang songs outside of the event.

Shortly after Sommers began speaking, protesters inside the room began chanting and singing in order to prevent Sommers from being heard.  Law School professor and Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Janet Steverson and other administrators attempted to contain the protestors.

“I think there were three students along the wall, they started singing the song ‘Which Side Are You On’ and then one of the three in the front started a chant and reading from her phone a prepared thing and getting everybody worked up,” Steverson said. “Associate Dean comes down, says ‘Please stop,’ they ignore him. … That went on, I’m told, I thought it was a minute, I’m told that from the video it was three or four minutes. But that was it. That was the only disruption. Or the only sustained disruption.”

This and other briefer interruptions compelled Steverson to request that Sommers end her speech early and move on to the question and answer portion of the event. Steverson said that although she did not initially intend to mediate between the protesters and Sommers; she intervened to move the session along for the sake of time and civility.  

“I wasn’t supposed to play that role,” Steverson said. “But somebody had to. Because the student organizers had no idea what to do. They just thought this was going to be a speaker coming, we’d have seven or eight students, so they just weren’t prepared. And I’m an administrator, so I guess I’m taking control.”

In an interview with the Pioneer Log, Sommers said that she was surprised by the response from law students and that she thought they were not very familiar with her or her work.

“Well my guess is they didn’t know who I was, I mean to call me a fascist,” Sommers said. “I mean I’m happy to be a registered Democrat and Jewish and there were all these groups aligned against me, I’m just thinking someone misread something.”

Sommers also expressed her appreciation for Steverson’s mediation.

“It was a little disappointing to see law students initially trying to silence me, but they have an excellent Dean of Diversity, Janet Steverson, and I thought she did a magnificent job,” Sommers said. “She just sort of diffused it, she had the respect of both sides. It just taught me something that’s important. Sometimes I go to colleges and they bring in guards and police and things, it’s probably good to have someone that’s such a good mediator.”

Sommers later criticized the Dean’s involvement in a tweet.

“Diversity Dean at Lewis & Clark was present,” the tweet said. “She approached the podium in middle of my talk & asked me to wrap up my speech & take questions. I was never able to develop my argument. Shouldn’t the dean have insisted protesters allow me to finish, rather than cut speech short?”

Many students were upset that they were given little notice before the event. Notification from The National Lawyers Guild LC chapter (NLG), other campus organizations and school announcements came Friday, three days before the event. While some thought this was deliberately done to prevent people from knowing about the event, Law School Director of Marketing and Communications Judy Asbury said that was not the case; the Administration found out about the speaker along with most of the students.

“We have an event procedure here where student groups can register events with our event staff coordinator,” Asbury said. “It happens all the time … It’s just a lot of events all of the time. So, the first thing (I) knew about it was Sunday evening when Christina Sommers and NLG started tweeting and so, I think that was when the Dean and the others deans got to together and said ‘it looks like this is going to be a volatile event and controversial at least’ and that we would limit it to just law students and faculty.”

Co-chair of NLG Maya Rinta 2L protested outside of the event and said that Sommers’ event was not protected by freedom of speech due to its hateful rhetoric.

“I think that the framing of freedom of speech and debating the issues gets used a lot in talking about ideas like this, but we know that this is someone who denies the existence of people and denies the existence of experience,” Rinta said. “So, we can debate how we want in certain discourses, but when it comes to giving a platform to a speaker like this on a law school campus and legitimizing her fascist propaganda and legitimizing her pseudo-academic, pseudo-scientific studies, we reject that and we reject that framing and we reject needing that debate.”

Carlisle Pearson 1L, Vice President of Outlaw, the Law campus LGBT group,  said that Sommers forfeits the protections of free speech once she undermines the experiences of sexual assault victims.

“I think that there’s a big difference between free speech and hate speech, and I think this crosses the line,” Pearson said. “I have done a lot of research on Sommer’s opinions and her ideology and she has outwardly said that if you’re intoxicated you can’t be raped, like rape doesn’t include being intoxicated.”

Pearson said that Sommers’ critique of transgender identity gave Outlaw great concern and led them to question Sommers’ academic validity.

“Another thing that I know about her is that she very much dismisses trans identities, and I identify as nonbinary,” Pearson said. “She is very much about binary sex, binary gender. She’s stated things like ‘Transgender people are trying to undermine science by not paying attention to sexual body markers and things of that nature, which if she actually did any research about that sort of thing it’s not as clear cut as people like to think it is. It’s completely dismissive of entire identities.”

As co-chair of the Federalist Society, the student group that invited Sommers to campus, David Sorenson 2L said that along with representing an unpopular viewpoint at LC, the organization decided Sommers’ ability to debate and support her opinions qualified her to speak on campus.

“She’s generally well-regarded in the academic sphere, she has a lot of data and statistics to back up her statements,” Sorenson said. “She’s used to having challenging conversations with both (professors) and students … so we thought that it would be a good chance to engage with someone who had researched a non-majority view on campus.”

Although the Federalist Society invited Sommers, Sorenson stressed that the organization had no malintent in the invitation, and that he believes it falls under the protection of free speech.

“We do believe even so that the requirements of rational discourse and the ability to discuss really difficult issues, especially on a law school campus, is integral,” Sorenson said. “We are, and we remain, somewhat disappointed with having individuals and fellow students impute malicious intent among our invitation to Ms. Sommers and upon their attempts to shut down the event.”

Sorenson also said that while the Federalist Society believes Sommers should have had her speech respected, they were happy with the thoughtful discourse and passion that the event prompted.

“We were deeply impressed by a lot of the engagement the students had that unfortunately did not make it into a lot of the media attention across the state and nation, but I really want to emphasize that when the question and answer session came we were delighted with how much thought and how truly challenging a lot of the discussion that was had was,” Sorenson said.

Director of Public Affairs Roy Kaufmann said that students on the Law campus need to decide how their education impacts the manner in which they participate in this type of debate.

“The conversation needs to happen among the students as well,” Kaufmann said. “What does it look like as a law student to engage in these kinds of issues with your legal training? If you are here to get legal training, a legal education, what does it mean to engage in these kinds of debates and discussions?”

After the event, debates nationwide took place over Sommers’ right to free speech. The New York Times ran an opinion piece titled “We’re All Fascists Now,” referring to the claims against Sommers, The Atlantic had an article on intersectionality and various other news sources deliberated over the students’ response to Sommers speaking.

The controversial nature of Sommers’ opinions, and the overwhelming response from both the students and the press, reflects a broader division in the contemporary free speech debate. Other colleges around the country have experienced similar events. Evergreen College had issues with students protesting former professor Bret Weinstein in 2017 for his views. U.C. Berkeley faced criticism from all sides during conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech.

In a statement released by LC on March 9, the school states that the event prompted appropriate dialogue and served as a message for the school.

“Critical thinking and discourse are integral to the mission of Lewis & Clark Law School,” the statement said. “We seek to welcome speakers who represent a variety of opinions, with the goal of stimulating discussions and expanding our views on important legal and social issues. Addressing ideas head-on, with reason and evidence, is what we do. We are an educational institution, and we will use this event as a learning opportunity for our students and our administration.” Additional reporting by Peter Kranitz and Hanna Merzbach.

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  1. Ms. Herring, this is excellent reporting. You obtain quotes from both sides invested in the debate and it appears that you fairly encapsulated their arguments with the quotes offered. You also researched spot-on third-party perspectives from the NYT and Atlantic; both generally respected sources for commentary. This honestly reads like “good old fashioned” reporting without the political spin, and I mean that as a compliment. This was refreshing. Thank you.

    My concern is the law students that protested believe Prof. Sommers has no right to speak because her so called “hate speech” isn’t free speech. First, nothing she said is hate speech. She relies on legitimate studies to back her opinions. Second, unlike what one of your interviewees says, even “hateful rhetoric” is free speech, otherwise there would be no need for a 1st Amendment.

    Make no mistake, without the 1st Amendment the civil rights and LGBT movements would have failed. The 1st Amendment is an activist’s primary weapon! It literally protects activists from being shut-down by police and government officials for what they say.

    I guess the only downside to the 1st Amendment is that it leaves everyone’s ideas open to challenge. I kid. That’s actually the genius of it. The best ideas survive challenge and debate, and the weak and the false will whither and die. Attorneys, more than anybody I can think of, must understand the value of debate to eventually lead to truth.

    I do agree that Prof. Sommers doesn’t place much value in peoples’ so called “experiences,” and rightly so. n=1 is neither scientific nor applicable to society at large. That she “denies the existence of experience” is a good thing because “anecdotal evidence” isn’t evidence of anything. And so called “experiences” are, at best, anecdotal evidence. What Prof. Sommers actually denies is the now fashionable made-up identities of “non-binary” people who exist between the ages of 12 and 25. And she’s right to do so because there is ZERO evidence to support the non-binary theology. Law students should understand the concept of evidence. And denying belief in non-binary identities is not the same as denying someone’s humanity. That’s a false equivalency. Fact is, in the West we are free to live as we desire so long as we don’t impinge on another person’s rights, but nobody has the right to tell another what to say or what to believe. Again, a law student should understand these simple truths.

  2. These are law students. If successful in promulgating the limited view of free speech that they profess in this article, they will destroy free speech. The surpise will come later when someone limits their speech. Tha fact that they cannot imagine this happening demonstrates either a lack of imagination or a lack of an education in history.

  3. ““I think that there’s a big difference between free speech and hate speech, and I think this crosses the line,” Pearson said. ”

    You do not belong in civilized society.

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