The Volokh Conspiracy

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CUNY Law Fed Soc co-president: Disruption of Blackman can be a "learning moment"


As regular readers are aware, Professor (and occasional VC guest-blogger) Josh Blackman was invited to CUNY Law School by the law school's Federalist Society to give a talk about free speech on campus. Before his talk, the CUNY administration sent out an email warning students not to disrupt the talk. Blackman was met with student protesters who seemed intent on disrupting the talk. An administrator dropped in, warned the students not to disrupt, and then left. The student protesters disrupted Blackman for about ten minutes, and then departed. Dean Mary Lu Bilek of CUNY Law made it clear that the disruptive students would not be penalized, warned, or even investigated. She stated: "This non-violent, limited protest was a reasonable exercise of protected free speech, and it did not violate any university policy."

In response, I noted that disruption could not possibly be consistent with university policy, and indeed I pointed to two provisions of the student handbook that were pretty clearly violated. I suggested that Dean Bilek was unfit to be dean, and should be fired. I stand by that. But I should have clarified at the time, for those not familiar with the law school academic setting, that being "fired" as dean means that you are relieved or your dean title and administrative responsibilities and return to the regular faculty, not that you lose employment.

In any event, Justin Kilborn, co-president of the CUNY Law Federalist Society, asked me to publish his response to my post. I won't comment on it, other than to note that Professor Blackman does not seem to share Mr. Kilborn's sanguine perspective, as expressed in the first two paragraphs of Kilburn's response, that the disruption should be seen as "learning moment" that ultimately worked out okay because Blackman had a "productive" conversation with the students who came to see his lecture. Blackman told "It absolutely disrupted what I wanted to do. I wasn't able to give the speech I wanted. I didn't have enough time to give it, or the energy to give it because I had to deal with all these other factors. These students were deliberately trying to interfere with my ability to exercise my constitutional rights." He told Tucker Carlson, "I tried to come on campus to talk about free speech, and I was shouted down. They yelled at me, they screamed at me, they called me a fascist, a white supremacist, a Nazi…. This was not a reasonable protest."

Here is Kilborn's full, unedited response to my post:

On April 16, David Bernstein, a professor at the George Mason University School of Law wrote, in the Volokh Conspiracy, that Mary Lu Bilek, dean of the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, needs to be fired. As a student at CUNY Law and the co-president of the CUNY Chapter of the Federalist Society, I feel obligated to make a statement in response to this.

To be sure, I am disappointed in my fellow students' unwillingness to partake in civil debate. I was happy to invite Josh Blackman, professor at South Texas College of Law, to our campus and I was taken aback at the reaction to our flyers. However, I cannot fully condemn my fellow students. The CUNY Chapter of the Federalist Society cannot claim to be advocates of free speech and then get mad when fellow students use their freedom of speech to protest ideas they dislike. Do I think my fellow students over-stepped their bounds in shouting down Professor Blackman? Yes. But if addressed properly this can be a learning moment for everyone at the school.

I fully appreciate Professor Blackman's willingness to work with us through the last-minute topic changes as we were unable to find any other professors willing to partake in a conversation regarding different theories of constitutional interpretation. I appreciate his patience in dealing with the protesters on campus and, while I was looking forward to hearing his prepared remarks about freedom of speech and having a diversity of ideas on campus, I believe that the conversation had with the students was productive. Ironically, while I could not persuade any other professors to speak with Professor Blackman on the topic of constitutional interpretation, a fair amount of the questions proposed by students at the event were about originalism.

Having said that; Dean Bilek's statement about the event is the same statement, I believe, any other dean of a law school would give if they found their school the center of this kind of attention. And, while Professor David Bernstein is more than welcome to wax poetic about how Dean Bilek's statement does not align with the rules stated in CUNY's policy and what happened in the video, that is about all that can be done at this point. With all due respect, Professor Bernstein is not aware of anything that might be taking place outside of the public view to address what happened at the event. I would never expect the dean of our school to throw her students under the bus just to please people that have no vested interest in the school community.

To call for Dean Bilek to be fired over this singular event is myopic and displays the difference between being a lifelong professor that is tasked with simply writing about school policy as opposed to an upper level administrator tasked with finding a proper balance in enforcing school policy.