Campus Free Speech

Don't Use the Term 'Trap House' in Your Party Invite at Yale Law School

Administrators attempted to force an apology out of a second-year law student whose Federalist Society affiliations and use of the term "trap house" were "triggering" to his peers.


At Yale Law School, a second-year student who is part Cherokee has come under fire from administrators and some black students for sending a message via an online forum inviting others to a party hosted by the Federalist Society and the Native American Law Students Association (NALSA). As Washington Free Beacon's Aaron Sibarium first reported, the issue stemmed from students objecting to the use of the word "trap house" when promoting the party, with critics from the Black Law Students Association alleging the party supports "black face" and that the conservative Federalist Society "has historically supported anti-Black rhetoric." Administrators received nine complaints about the party invite, and promptly summoned the student in question to their office.

(Washington Free Beacon)

Once there, Ellen Cosgrove, an associate dean, and Yaseen Eldik, diversity director, hectored the student (who Free Beacon did not name), telling him that the use of the word "trap" and the mention of fried chicken was "triggering" to other students, in addition to the "email's association with FedSoc." Eldik told the student that "FedSoc belongs to political affiliations that are oppressive to certain communities," mentioning the "LGBTQIA community and black communities and immigrant communities" specifically. Both administrators insinuated that if the student did not apologize, this incident could negatively affect his chances of passing the bar exam, which allows administrators to weigh in on matters of character, with Eldik even going so far as to draft an apology for the student to send. (The student ultimately declined to do so, instead writing in an online forum that he welcomed questions from those who had complained or taken offense.)

"As a man of color, there probably isn't as much scrutiny of you as there might be of a white person in the same position," Eldik told the student, per the Free Beacon's reporting. "I just want to acknowledge that there's a complexity to that too." This tacit acknowledgment from Eldik that the student's racial background would be taken into account when determining how offensive the act was, and what type of punishment it deserves, is preposterous; people who are themselves members of minority groups are not immune from holding bigoted beliefs (though we do not have strong evidence to indicate that is the case here).

Contra Free Beacon's explanation, though, the term "trap house" did not rise to prominence due to its titular use by the popular podcast Chapo Trap House. Trap houses have long been a fixture of rap lyrics (the term long predates even Gucci Mane's use of the term for his 2005 album), normally used to describe seedy run-down houses where drugs like crack are sold and used. The word worked its way into mainstream use over time, with 2 Chainz's pink trap house in Atlanta even becoming Instagram fodder. It now just means something roughly akin to "place with a fun party." While use of the term does imply that a party will not be a particularly elegant or sophisticated affair, it does not at all imply that people should show up in blackface. (Ethics of doing so aside, you'd have to be quite naive to show up to a party in blackface as a 24-year-old aspiring lawyer, in an era of iPhone cameras, in the year 2021, making it even more risible that this was the party host's intention.)

Even if you hate the idea of a Federalist Society member using slang that originated with a different ethnic group and has deep roots in rap and hip hop music, it should be far more concerning for those who care about academic freedom that administrators attempted to force an apology over the phrase from a grown adult, while also implying that they could sink the student's chances at passing the bar if he refused. Debra Kroszner, the managing director at Yale's Office of Public Affairs, tells Reason that "while any person may report concerns about a lawyers' character and fitness to the Bar, the Law School has a longstanding policy of reporting only formal disciplinary action to the Bar Association. Any media reporting to the contrary is false," clarifying that the student did not receive formal disciplinary action but that the administration merely "tries to help students talk to one another and resolve their disagreements." But if the Free Beacon's reporting is true, Yale's administrators did not just make evenhanded attempts at helping students resolve a dispute. While it's good that the student was not formally sanctioned for his speech, his alleged treatment by university administrators is nonetheless troubling. You don't need to formally punish edgy speech in order to make students feel as if they can't speak freely.

It's also highly disturbing that tomorrow's lawyers and academics believe a person's affiliation with the Federalist Society—a conservative professional group that has launched the legal careers of many a Supreme Court justice—precludes them from a presumption of innocence. The students who will soon be entrusted with defending criminal defense in our courts of law surely recognize the value of an intellectual culture that doesn't attempt to rain down punishment for the supposed sin of being a conservative who sends out edgy party invitations.