We’re Not “Cripplingly Sensitive,” Black Students at Yale Law Just Want to Talk
My classmate at Yale Law School is wrongly conflating criticism of the content of his speech with an attempt to suppress his right to speak.
I am writing as a Yale Law School student who is frustrated by another attempt by the right wing and their allies in the media to paint my peers as “cripplingly sensitive.” We are right to speak up when we are offended, and we have. Black students at Yale Law School reached out to our classmate who has advanced his story of right wing victimhood across the media. But you would never know this from reading recent news coverage, which almost completely ignores the perspectives of Black students.
My classmate is telling an incomplete side of a skewed narrative. He is regurgitating the tired right wing talking point that the illiberal left shuts down free speech in the name of antiracism, while the victimized right is deprived of the chance to meet with their accusers. The facts don’t support that conclusion. My classmate is conflating criticism of the content of his speech with an attempt to suppress his right to speak. But our reaction as Black students to the contents of my classmate’s speech is just as protected as his right to speak.
On September 15, my classmate invited members of the Native American Law Students Association to a “Constitution Day bash” at the “NALSA Trap House.” The invitation promised that the event would be sponsored by the conservative Federalist Society, and would feature “Popeye’s chicken” and “basic-bitch-American-themed snacks.”
Several Black students, myself included, were offended by the invitation. It used racist and misogynistic language and tropes, and it evoked the racially-themed parties that have plagued college campuses for decades. We told our classmate about our concerns in detail, and invited him to speak with us privately, both as student group leaders and as individuals. On September 30, at a Yale Law School reception, I walked up to him, shook his hand, and underscored my desire to communicate. He ignored all of us for the better part of a month. Some students alerted the Office of Student Affairs about the racially charged language being used by a peer, in the hopes that school administrators might be able to provide some assistance with communication. Then, nearly a month later, my classmate went to the media to respond.
First, the Washington Free Beacon posted the story, describing the invitation as a “lighthearted email” and condemning the administration for its response. Then, Slate ran an article ostensibly claiming that those students who raised concerns about the invitation were unwittingly aiding the Federalist Society in its desire to achieve the “coveted” status of victimhood. Next, the Washington Post published two opinion pieces, one by Ruth Marcus stating “sorry, but if you’re triggered by the Federalist Society, you don’t belong on a law school campus,” and the other by Kathleen Parker calling concerned students “cripplingly sensitive.” On Saturday morning, CNN featured the student in a morning interview. Then, on Wednesday, the Atlantic ran a piece by Conor Friedersdorf that neglected to consult or meaningfully consider the perspectives of Black students at the law school. This omission by Friedersdorf was particularly concerning given the plethora of perspectives Black students and other students of color at Yale Law have provided over the past week.
Conservative groups purport to value free speech and free communication, but when it comes time to hear things they don’t like, they all too often say that their critics are suppressing their speech. Antiracism and free speech are not mutually exclusive; they are, in fact, essential to one another. To combat racism and misogyny, we must engage freely with one another about complex, confusing, essential topics. In order to be antiracist one must be able to examine speech that is perceived as racist. One must be able to freely speak about the way the perceived speech is harmful. Yet, what we continue to see is people opting out of this process of engagement when they are criticized, and still demanding the most wide-reaching free speech protections for their own views. My classmate’s choice to avoid his Black peers’ challenges is a case study in that opting-out. He avoided my personal outreach and the outreach of my peers for weeks, until finally agreeing to talk only after he had gone to the media. He blamed Black students for our interpretation of his words and mischaracterized our intent and actions on a national stage instead of engaging with us privately, as he requested.
It is also important to note that the vast majority of reporters covering this issue have chosen not to reach out to either Black students or women at Yale Law School. They have chosen to ignore important voices on a nuanced issue. Most have elected to publish articles and opinion pieces (largely written by non-Black authors) that dismiss Black students’ concerns about racism as infantile. Instead, they have uplifted my classmate’s misleading insinuations that his peers did not want to speak with him directly about their concerns. I wonder how much of this is because the man who sent the invite is a member of a well-connected conservative political organization, and how much of it is because those he offended were predominantly Black students.
History teaches that the powerful employ silence and omission to create their own narratives. As I listened to my classmate tell a CNN anchor that his peers had barely reached out to him, I was shocked. Just 18 hours before, I had an hour-long, deeply intentional conversation with him after he had ignored me for nearly a month.
So I am left to consider my personal experiences with erasure and hypocrisy, and how those experiences factor into a broader picture. Whose speech is considered worthy of protection? And who gets to complain about suppression when their views are challenged? What is a person really seeking when they insist that their actions are tolerated without question? Is that resisting “cancel culture” or is that simply resisting critical thought?
Questions like these are valuable, and drive freedom of thought. Conservative organizations like the Federalist Society extol the values of freedom of expression while resisting any challenges to the content of their speech. The media happily obliges them, and the result is that Black students’ voices are ignored in this historical moment. The idea that Black students suppress their conservative classmates by challenging the use of racially charged language is antithetical to the true meaning of free expression. My classmates in the Federalist Society specifically, and the political right generally, should spend more time considering the best intent of our First Amendment, and less time crying “foul” when they are challenged.
Saja Spearman-Weaver, Yale Law School ‘23