Kristen Waggoner doesn't get usually get nervous. As one of Alliance Defending Freedom's top attorneys, she's argued before the Supreme Court, tackled high-profile cases, and spoken in front of her share of hostile crowds. But something about her visit to Yale University Law School last week felt different. "I can count on about one hand when I get really [anxious] before something," she said. This was one of those moments. Walking into a room filled with a raging student mob didn't just mean she was in danger -- it meant the culture of free speech in higher education was on the verge of complete collapse.
The invitation was straightforward. The Yale Federalist Society had asked two attorneys from opposite sides of the judicial spectrum to talk about a case where the two attorneys agreed. The whole point of the panel was to show that a liberal atheist and a conservative Christian could find common ground on the issue of free speech. Or it was, before more than 120 woke protestors decided to shout down the event, creating a scene so heated that campus police eventually had to escort the speakers from the building. "It was pretty much the most innocuous thing you could talk about," one lawyer said later, pointing out that even the Supreme Court had decided it 8-1.
But obviously, the students at Yale were never taught about the free exchange of ideas, because the minute Waggoner was introduced, the crowd rose in unison -- yelling and holding vile signs about ADF. When the moderator, a Yale professor, tried to control the situation -- reminding students about the campus's rule to let speakers be heard -- the crowd turned on her. One girl vowed to physically fight the woman, others screamed profanities and raised their middle fingers. In the cell phone video that went viral, you can hear her tell the students to "grow up" -- which only made the mob more incensed. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave -- or help you leave," she threatened.
"At some point, the protesters all... stood up... after snapping their fingers and doing these precocious juvenile gestures, [and] came down to the front next to me and Monica [Miller] from the Humanist Association, walked right by us, slapped some signs down, called us some names, and walked out of the room," Waggoner said. "But then for the next 45 minutes or so, they began to pound on the walls outside of the exits of the room and to scream and chant and those kinds of things. In those moments we were able to get some words in, but then they came back in... to start their jeering and their hurling of insults. It got to the point where it was so volatile that we couldn't even exit the building without security."
As personally disturbing as the experience was, Waggoner -- and the entire legal class -- are much more concerned about what it means. "What was the most concerning to me leaving that room," she said, "was that they were not able to engage in any kind of critical thinking, in any intellectual curiosity. There was such a lack of humility and just basic civility to be able to engage with viewpoints they disagreed with. And again, there was nothing controversial about the topic we were speaking about." Also, she wanted everyone to know, the footage that people are seeing was "probably the tamest part of the event." It was nothing, she insisted, "compared to the next hour that we were in that room."
Across the country, attorneys on both sides have been horrified by the students' vulgarity, their lack of civility, but -- more importantly -- their fierce hostility to open debate. Judge Laurence Silberman of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals thought the incident was so alarming that he emailed every single Article III judge Thursday, urging them to bar these students from clerkships. He wrote:
"The latest events at Yale Law School, in which students attempted to shout down speakers participating in a panel discussion on free speech, prompt me to suggest that students who are identified as those willing to disrupt any such panel discussion should be noted. All federal judges -- and all federal judges are presumably committed to free speech -- should carefully consider whether any student so identified should be disqualified from potential clerkships."
As Waggoner pointed out, these students are our future leaders -- judges, Supreme Court justices, legislators, corporate executives -- and "their inability to tolerate any opinion but their own demonstrates to us that we're really starting to head towards this sort of tyranny, where the mob thinks that they will rule and crush any opposing viewpoints." And unfortunately, this is all being modeled to them at the earliest ages in America's public schools. Children aren't taught to have civil conversations with those who hold different views. They're taught to reject truth, shun science, and oppress those who question the Left's orthodoxy.
That might fly in the indulgent cocoon of Yale -- but in the real world, you can't shout down your opposing counsel. You can't flip off the negotiator across the table or threaten to punch a shareholder. This is a breakdown in reason and order that's creating an entire generation of students who are ill-prepared to deal with the challenges of a diverse society. In so many ways, it comes back to basic human dignity -- rooted in an understanding that every person has value because they're created in the image of God. If America is to rediscover civility, it will first have to rediscover the Creator.
As a nation -- and the education revolution we're witnessing is part of this -- we have to get back to promoting the free exchange of ideas. FRC's Travis Weber, who graduated from law school and is saddened by this breakdown of civility, insists that the whole point of legal education is to train students to appreciate the arguments of both sides. "The professor's job is to say, 'What is the other side's argument?' Even if you don't agree, your job is to understand. That's the opposite of what's happening here. We're not even creating a functional legal education system... [It's] really dark and foreboding. I think this calls us to pray."
Meanwhile, at Yale, where the motto is "Light and Truth," there was some hope that all is not lost. Just as Kristen's legs started shaking and the room became more volatile, a student who must have known what was going to happen slipped her a note with a word from Scripture. "Keep the faith and good luck," he had written at the bottom. It moved her, because she realized that he probably wasn't able to speak his mind in this moment, but she could. "God goes before us," she thought. "And it just deepened my commitment... to be kind and to be civil -- and to model that to them, but not to back down from the truth and the importance of what's at stake here."