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Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and People Who Make Studying Difficult

  1 Comment

Imagine that you’re a highly-accomplished attorney with outspoken conservative political views.  You favor a view of executive power which, if implemented, would appear to give almost unlimited power to the President in wartime.  Oh, and you served in the office of legal counsel for President George W. Bush, where you authored memos that allegedly were used to create a legal justification for the torture of detainees. Do you think your decision to teach at UC Berkeley’s school of law after all this would be well-received by that school’s notoriously left wing student body?

I’m speaking, of course, of John Yoo, who, according to Above The Law, is teaching a course at that university’s law school this semester. Professor Yoo has been on the Berkeley Law (formerly known as Boalt Hall) faculty since 1993, and is returning after a leave of absence. He is currently teaching a class on the California Constitution.

As you might imagine, some members of the Berkeley student body aren’t taking this too well. They’ve been protesting around the offices of the law school’s administration, demanding that they fire Yoo. Also, they’ve been putting up posters like the one below all over campus.

As a result, the location of Yoo’s class has not been disclosed to anyone except students who are enrolled in it, to prevent it from being disrupted by protestors. Incidentally, the protestors outside the administration building are also demanding that the location of the class be made public.

This raises some interesting questions about the protestors’ right to free speech, John Yoo’s right to effectively teach his class, and the rights of his students to get their money’s worth.

Personally, I’m all for free speech. Let the protestors protest. However, their right to free speech does not entitle them to any assistance from the people they’re going to be protesting. If PETA wants to protest the fact that I enjoy a nice steak at every opportunity, that’s fine, but I don’t have to tell them where I live so they can exercise their right to free speech in front of my house.

As someone who was a law student not too long ago, I can say that I would be none too pleased if these protestors attempted to disrupt a class I was attending. After all, the students didn’t write those memos, and did nothing to advance the policies that Yoo advocated and helped to implement. It’s a fair assumption that at least some of the students in his class don’t agree with his opinions about executive power or how detainees should be treated, but they saw some academic value in his class.

In the end, these protestors will probably be hurting the students far more than they hurt Professor Yoo, and it’s totally appropriate for the location of the class to go undisclosed for that reason. Something tells me that if protestors make it impossible to conduct his class for most or part of the semester, he’ll still collect his salary. Do you think those students will get a partial refund on their tuition for the time they missed? Not likely.


  • mike

    As FIRE will tell you, even public universities already have various policies that deny freedom of speech to their students. It would seem like this would be a good case in which to implement such a policy.

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