JONATHAN TURLEY

Cornell Professors Declare “Informed Commentary” Criticizing The Protests As Racism

Yesterday, we discussed the effort to remove one of the country’s most distinguished economists from his position because Harald Uhlig, the senior editor of the Journal of Political Economy,  criticized Black Lives Matter and the Defund The Police movement.  Now, Cornell Law School professor William A. Jacobson is reportedly facing demands that he be fired because he wrote a blog about the Black Lives Matter movement.  Jacobson is the founder of the conservative website Legal Insurrection.  My concerns were magnified by a letter from his colleagues that would label virtually any criticism of BLM or the protests as presumptively racist. The letter is a chilling reminder of the rapid loss of free speech values on campuses around the United States.

Twenty-one colleagues at Cornell signed a June 9, a letter denouncing unnamed “commentators… attached to Ivy League Institutions” as calls were made to the Dean to have Jacobson fired.  The professors lashed out against academic commentators who criticize the looting as effectively racists:

“These commentators express rage over the sporadic looting that has taken place amidst the largely peaceful protests, calling for organized manhunts to track down those responsible. Theirs is a form of racism that gives cover to those police who use their batons and tear gas and rubber bullets and fists to silence and maim their critics.

These commentators are the defenders of institutionalized racism and violence. They are entitled to their viewpoints. We do not name them, so as to deprive them of a larger platform for their racist speech.”

The letter is signed by a huge number of clinicians (Professors Zohra Ahmed, Sandra Babcock, Briana Beltran, Celia Bigoness, John Blume, Elizabeth Brundige, Angela Cornell, Sujata Gibson, Mark H. Jackson, Sheri Lynn Johnson, Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer, Cortelyou Kenney, Sital Kalantry, Ian M. Kysel, Mallory J. Livingston, Delphine Lourtau, Beth Lyon, Estelle McKee, Keir Weyble, Carlton E. Williams, and Stephen Yale-Loehr).

Not a word about academic freedom or free of speech;  not a suggestion that critics of these protests could have anything other than racist motivations.  It is the antipathy of the intellectual foundations for higher education.  Rather than address the merits of arguments, you attack those with opposing views personally and viciously. That has become a standard approach to critics on our campuses.  Unless you agree with the actions of the movement, you are per se racist.  It is a mantra that is all too familiar historically: if you are not part of the resistance, you are reactionary … or, in this period, racist.

It is rather bizarre that these professors would focus on “commentators attached to Ivy League Institutions.”  First, it confines the objection to Brown UniversityColumbia UniversityCornell UniversityDartmouth CollegeHarvard University, the University of PennsylvaniaPrinceton University, and Yale University. Second, it is strikingly elitist.  It would suggest that somehow these schools are the only important measure — or at least those schools matter the most.  From anything other than an elitist (even privileged) perspective, the focus on ivy league schools exclusively is far from self-evident since most of those schools are ranked behind non-Ivy League schools in U.S. News & World Report, including Cornell which is ranked 17th among universities.   Finally, it suggests that the presence of conservative (which they seem to view as synonymous with racist) scholars have no place at such schools. That last point is unfortunately the view of many faculty at top schools which are overwhelmingly if not exclusively liberal.

The professors, of course, have every right to to denounce writers for what they believe are racist elements or messaging in their writings.  However, they specifically go after scholars who they believe defend “institutionalized racism and violence” and “express rage over the sporadic looting that has taken place.” That would encompass what they describe as seemingly “informed commentary” supporting institutions of a racist society. It is an all-too-familiar attack on campuses against speakers and academics. What is most striking for me is the inclusion of Professors Mark H. Jackson and Cortelyou Kenney, who teach in the Cornell First Amendment Clinic. They are in fact the Director and Associate Director of the First Amendment Clinic, which is presumably committed to the value of free speech even at private institutions. So these professors teach free speech and just signed a letter that people who question the BLM movement or denounce the looting are per se or at least presumptive racists.  It is reflection of how free speech is being redefined to exclude protections with those who hold opposing views.

Jacobson wrote two posts he wrote about the Black Lives Matter movement, including one the “hands up don’t shoot” mantra and another on what he viewed as the movement’s destructive politics.

The language is sweeping and insulting of the BLM movement:

“The goal is to destroy capitalism, and to seek revenge. The Black Lives Matter movement, founded based on fraudulent narratives of the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases, is led by anti-American, anti-capitalist activists. They have concocted a false narrative of mass murder of Blacks at the hands of police, when the statistics show otherwise. They will exploit George Floyd’s death mercilessly to drive that agenda. And they will have some success, because all the institutions listed above are behind them.”

I am unfamiliar with Jacobson’s writings.  Once again, however, the merits of such arguments are immaterial. What is disturbing is the effort to silence Jacobson because he holds such opposing views.  This letter coincides with what Jacobson says is an effort to get him fired.  That would not be unexpected. Conservative and libertarian academics are increasingly being subject to discipline or harassed by their Administrations in the hope of getting them to leave faculties.  Moreover, many in the BLM movement use equally inflammatory language but are rarely called out by Administrators, students, or faculty.  Why cannot both views we treated as enriching the debate on a campus, allowing sharply different values to be heard in a pluralistic academic environment?

A petition of Cornell alumni calls for Jacobson to be fired (specifically, “to end its association with Professor Jacobson and publicly condemn [his] views.”).  The petition begins with the objection that Jacobson has “written frequently and critically of Black Lives Matter on his blog and, more recently, has written a number of articles concerning the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests.”  The school has indeed condemned his view and the clinical letter pledges to pursue all those engaging in commentary deemed as advancing unacceptable views or ends.

The message for other faculty by these Cornell clinicians is both clear and intimidating.  Disagree with the BLM movement or the protests and you will be labeled a racist.  Indeed, the letter ends on a menacing note: “And we will continue to expose and respond to racism masquerading as informed commentary.”  Thus, if you attempt “informed commentary” on the costs of looting and the need for great law enforcement, you are a per se racist.  

have previously discussed how college protesters are increasingly denouncing free speech and the foundations for liberal democracies. Some protesters reject classic liberalism and the belief in free speech as part of the oppression on campus.  We have been discussing the rising intolerance and violence on college campuses, particularly against conservative speakers. (here and here and here and here). Berkeley has been the focus of much concern over mob rule on our campuses as violent protesters have succeeded in silencing speakers, even including a few speakers like an ACLU official.  Both students and some faculty have maintained the position that they have a right to silence those with whom they disagree and even student newspapers have declared opposing speech to be outside of the protections of free speech.  At another University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display.  In the meantime, academics and deans have said that there is no free speech protection for offensive or “disingenuous” speech.  CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,”  Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech.

The recent protests have served as a catalyst for the rising intolerance on our campus. There is an enforced orthodoxy that is captured in the Cornell letter.  These letters are successful in creating a chilling effect on academics who are intimidated by these threats.  To be labelled as a racist is devastating to an academic career and these professors know that.  Now, even “informed commentary” will be denounced as racist if a professor raises a dissenting view.  It is not just the death of free speech but our intellectual mission on university and college campuses.