This was co-written by Yale Law School students Will Bloom, Wally Hilke, Bethany Hill, Amit Jain, Andrés López-Delgado, Maya Menlo, and Joseph Meyers.
In a recent opinion piece in Time, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken breathes a sigh of relief: Unlike the disruptive protesters at Middlebury and Claremont McKenna colleges earlier this year, her law students are trained to respectfully voice their dissent. “From the first day in class, students must defend an argument they don’t believe or pretend to be a judge whose values they dislike,” she writes. “The litigation system is premised on the hope that truth will emerge if we ensure that everyone has a chance to have her say.” She argues that this professional decorum is the most effective way to overcome division, reminding us that it was powerful enough to protect lawyers like Thurgood Marshall from violence during the civil-rights era.
Unfortunately, Dean Gerken’s article mischaracterizes both the protest that we and around 20 other students helped organize against Charles Murray in October 2016 and the treatment of civil-rights lawyers in the South. If anything, our legal training has taught us that civility has its limits, and that disruption, creative protest, and rule-breaking are valid and often necessary tactics to effect change.
Dean Gerken claims that civil-rights luminary and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was able to practice law in small, segregated towns in rural Maryland during the early days of the civil-rights movement because “members of the Maryland bar had decided to treat Marshall as a lawyer, first and foremost.” This account fails to mention that though Marshall and other black lawyers were permitted to practice in American courtrooms, once the courthouse doors closed, a different form of American “justice”—mob violence, lynching, and death threats—awaited them in the dark of night. To suggest that the legal profession’s culture of respect protected Marshall fails to acknowledge the violent tenacity of white supremacy. It ignores the fact that activists did not triumph over these forms of coercion in the courtroom alone, but through protest and direct confrontation with Jim Crow policies. This is the American history we learn at Yale Law School.
Dean Gerken suggests that disruptive protests undermine activists’ causes and harm academic debate. To this point, 57 percent of Americans in 1961 thought that disruptive lunch-counter sit-ins and freedom rides hurt black people’s’ chances of being integrated in the South. It is now clear that this criticism was not meant to support racial justice but to suppress it: Most of those Americans did not want black people to be their equals.