When Elite Law School Students Reject Free Speech In Principle And Practice

The people who dominate American public life come from a few elite schools. Yale Law School (YLS) is one of those institutions. Recently three groups (Yale Federalist Society, American Humanist Association, Alliance Defending Freedom), who represent views across the ideological spectrum, tried to hold a meeting to discuss and promote free speech. YLS students shut it down. Two-thirds of the student body sided with those who wanted to silence speech with which they disagreed. There are several news stories on this event. Here is one»

This is a significant event because from the YLS student body comes future congressional aids, congressional representatives, US senators, judges, federal prosecutors, spies, FBI agents, and perhaps even a future president; some of them believe that only one point of view may be articulated in public America. They have rejected a core American value: free speech. One might quibble over whether BigSocMedia’s silencing of dissent is quashing free speech but thuggish students intimidating speakers at an event honoring free speech is nothing but silencing dissent. They may not have been wearing brown shirts but they probably should have done.

Was this just a temper tantrum or is this part of a larger, longer term pattern that we are seeing on elite campuses in the USA? Consider the case of Jerelyn Luther, the notorious “shrieking girl,” who, in 2015, was filmed raging incoherently at Nicholas Christakis, then “master” of Siliman College, Yale. She seems impenitent and has gone on to Columbia Law School and is on track to take a leadership position in American life. Consider the numerous episodes on campuses across the USA over the last decade (most ironically at the University of California, Berkeley, home of the “free speech” movement in the 1960s), where students and others (e.g., Antifa, dressed in black bloc) have violently attacked those with whom they disagree. For more on this see the resources below.

American Christians should pay attention to this trend because we have an interest in free speech. We have a right to expect the magistrate to protect the freedom (the relative absence of restraint) of speech from the exercise of all external compulsion, whether by the state itself or by mobs. We expect such protection on the Christian Sabbath when we gather for public worship and we expect it on Monday evening when we gather with other Americans to discuss our secular lives together. We expect it when we stand on the sidewalk and urge people not to abort their unborn children and we expect it when pastors are doing evangelism on the boardwalk in New Jersey.

The USA is a liberal (i.e., tolerant) democratic Republic. By our Declaration and our Bill of Rights we have agreed to live together despite our differences, even when those differences are deeply held. The YLS mob has a right to their deeply held beliefs but they do not have a right to intimidate, threaten, or otherwise coerce others into silence. Should such behavior be allowed to continue, the Republic cannot continue. That members of the YLS mob might continue, impenitently, into positions of authority in the American government gives us all reason for concern.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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6 comments

  1. Yes. What happened at Yale Law portends a future in which government either suppresses speech itself or connives with private actors who do. God remains in control, and the Church has survived and thrived in very hostile environments in the past. Nevertheless this evil ought to be confronted boldly now. If it is not, it will require a great deal more boldness to contradict ideological propaganda in the future. Solzhenitsyn has a lot to teach us in this regard.

  2. I agree with this statement: “American Christians should pay attention to this trend because we have an interest in free speech.” But I am unclear as to how this is to manifest itself. There seems to be a broad consensus among the evangelical and the Reformed Churches to keep silent on this issue and so many others. Yet the papist Abp. Vigano, speaks clearly and Shepherdly on these issues. Very brave, and very solid factually. Why does a papist do this, but Protestant Christianity seems to be silent? The few Pastors that do speak out are well known precisely because there are so few. Is it wrong to want or expect the Churches to take a position on issues and speak truth to Magistrate? Or are we as believing citizens suppose to do this as citizens who happen to believe, and keep our Churches out of the fray?

    • Randy,

      I see a potential problem the subject of the verb in your clause, “broad consensus among the evangelical and Reformed churches to keep silent on this issue.” Why must the churches as institutions speak up? I am not saying that they should not or that they may not. It will likely be more effective for Christians as citizens and in citizen associations to speak to these issues.

      The danger of enlisting the churches as institutions to speak to issues is that it is a short step to becoming the Conference of Catholic Bishops or the PCUSA, which speak to everything. The church may and should speak to a very limited number of issues and only in extremis. I think the churches as institutions are wise to wait and pick their battles.

      It is certainly not true that “Protestant Christianity” (depending on what that means) is silent on free speech issues but it is probably true that Protestant could be more active in the civil sphere. The evangelicals struggle with this because they do not have a category for nature. They have only grace and thus every battle becomes a religious battle or a moral crusade. The Reformed are a small number in this country and we too often lack nature as a category too.

      The HB is speaking up and others are. This is why we need your support!

      • The subject of the clause was intentional. That is the issue. Your response is helpful. It seems a pragmatic and actionable answer to me. For now, it may be better for us, as Churchmen, to avoid encouraging our local/denominational Church Organization leadership to take stands in the public matters. But that the Churchmen themselves may or should as circumstances dictate. I guess the followup is: are there Biblical guidelines you would recommend to us Reformed Believers in speaking as citizens? For instance, Is it imperative to identify ourselves as believers when engaging in the public square on public “secular” matters ? Or would prudence suggest not identifying as a believer unless it is a ‘denial of Christ’ moment? Similarly, would the arguments for things like free speech best be supported by secular documents, or is it is also necessary or important to draw the principles back to Scripture as the final authority? I realize this is not chat room material. But I would love to see you expand on these things, possibly engaging with the Civil Magistrate arguments of men like Pastor Trewhella – particularly from a Reformed Confessional perspective. If you have a resource page already for this, I apologize for not finding it. Thanks for all you do

  3. We can protest and talk to people at Yale all we want, but it will be futile. I am a Yale alumnus (BA, not JD), and what I see from the administration, the alumni magazine, and various polls and forums of my fellow alumni is that this is the predominant view among Yale administrators, faculty, alumni, and students.

    And with the Yale endowment at $42 billion, they frankly don’t have to care what we think, and they don’t.

    The humorous comment is that Yale has long since alienated both of its conservative alumni and so doesn’t have to care what they think.

    • For some time I have been thinking about that shadow between ‘go ye therefore and preach’ and ‘do not cast your pearl before swine.’ Certainly Jonah was not grieved–he was very angry with Nineveh. He was wrong. However, the Jews were hardened and spoke evil of the Way and were called dogs. It is time for the Church to understand how to respond to seasons of exceptional apostasy.

      Best,
      Michael E.

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