The Volokh Conspiracy

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An Interview with Judge Matthew Solomson About the Columbia Boycott


In the wake of the announced boycott against Columbia University, I posed several questions to Judge Matthew Solomson of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. I provide his answers, with light editing, below:

Q: Shortly after October 7, you announced that you would not hire clerks who signed a letter supporting the Hamas attacks. Why did you make that decision?

The pro-Hamas letter you reference, signed by many Harvard student groups, engaged in extreme victim-blaming, assigning all culpability to Israel for the October 7th Hamas-led massacre.  Justifying Hamas's murderous pogrom by saying Israel deserved what it got is nothing less than supporting a terrorist organization – the same as blaming the United States for 9/11.  And I simply made the point that supporting Hamas – a terrorist group designated as such by the United States government – is inexcusable and should be disqualifying for a federal clerkship (just as supporting Al-Qaeda or ISIS would be).  

Particularly in the wake of the Hamas-led butchering, raping, and kidnapping of civilians – including Americans – living peacefully within Israel's 1948 borders, the Harvard letter truly disgusted me.   

Of course, there is literally zero doubt that if someone signed a letter supporting the KKK, they wouldn't get a clerkship (or any job with any law firm of significance). The letter justifying the Hamas terrorist attacks on 10/7 was no different. The only reason anyone would consider my statement controversial is if they think Hamas is not comparable to the KKK.  The two groups, of course, are both abhorrent.  

Judge Lee Rudofsky (E.D. Ark.) also issued a statement similar to mine (but addressed to his future clerks and interns).  Both our statements received a fair deal of news coverage but no criticism of any note.

The most pushback I received was from a colleague who said that the disqualification was so obvious, I need not have said anything. 

Q: Although you boycotted particular students who signed the Hamas letter, you refused to support a boycott of an entire school, like Judges Ho and Branch proposed. You said, "There's just a big difference between saying someone should quit Stanford, Yale and go to a different school and saying that you should resign from a student organization." Why did you reach that position in October?

It wasn't a "position," as much as an off-the-cuff reaction distinguishing between what the other judges had done with respect to Yale and Stanford, and what I had said with respect to pro-Hamas students.  But the Ho-Branch boycott wasn't really on my mind at all.  I hadn't considered it in any detail (and didn't realize, for example, that it was prospective only).  

That said, my reaction to the Harvard letter was that a localized problem warranted a limited response.  Since then, the pro-Hamas, anti-American, intellectual rot has proven pervasive.  The full extent of the campus problems Judges Ho and Branch were trying to address is obviously much worse than anyone thought, including me.

Q: What has happened since October? What has surprised you the most about campus unrest, and how universities have responded to them? What have you personally seen on the streets of Washington, D.C.? 

In a nutshell, what went from a roundly-criticized, morally-bankrupt letter from Harvard student groups became a dominant view on college campuses across the country, in many cases backed by faculty members, if not fostered by the schools themselves.  Nearly overnight, the universities went from wringing their hands about speech codes and microaggressions to recharacterizing prohibited actions (e.g., encampments, occupied buildings, and student-enforced no-go zones for some of their classmates) and widespread harassment as protected speech.  It's sobering that of all the times they could have discovered free-speech maximalism – and should have owned the hypocrisy –  they've done so now to protect rank antisemitism.  

In addition, I had gained further  perspective on just how antisemitic the anti-Israel cause is via a widely reported judicial educational mission to Israel, which included 13 other federal judges.  One purpose of our trip was to bear witness to the massacre that Hamas led on October 7.  We reluctantly watched the 47-minute video compilation of the terrorist attack.  It was devastating and it was only a small sample of the footage.  In many ways, it was worse than old Holocaust reels. Whereas those old WWII films are in black and white and the Nazis' extermination campaign was clinical and industrial, the October 7 pogrom was intimate and personal, often triumphantly recorded by the perpetrators themselves in HD color on their mobile phones or Go-Pros. The footage is scene after scene of parents killed in front of their children, entire families wiped out while in their pajamas, clear evidence of the most violent sort of rape, not to mention beheadings and mutilations – all done with glee and frequently in the name of God.  They expressly and specifically declared their joy in killing Jews, not "colonists."  Many of the attackers were in plain clothes and appeared to be just ordinary Gazans – as later reports confirmed – who followed the uniformed terrorists through the fence line. The violence was on the level of a Tarantino movie, but this was real life, not Hollywood.


In that context, any campus unrest that has the effect of lending support to Hamas is shocking. Even the generic calls for a ceasefire are disturbing when you think about it.  There was a ceasefire on October 6, Israel hadn't occupied Gaza since 2005, and Hamas started a war on October 7.  Calls for a ceasefire mean that the Jewish state should forfeit its right to self defense, while simultaneously rewarding the terrorists for employing human shields, including American hostages, in violation of international law.  In other words, even the least-controversial demonstrators would treat Jews differently than every other people or nation; only Jews are not allowed to win a war to defeat the terrorists that seek to murder them.  It's not as if Hamas has renounced its goal to destroy Israel. Indeed, Hamas has doubled down, threatening to launch "a second, a third, a fourth" attack until Israel is "annihilated." 

But even assuming that reasonable people could disagree about those points, the obvious antisemitic and anti-American campus incidents are too numerous to list comprehensively.  They include: Jews being told to "go back to Poland"; Jewish students being blocked from entering a university library; students defacing school property with genocidal slogans; harassing Jewish students without consequence; calling for violent revolution; hoisting the flag of Hezbollah; and desecrating the American flag or raising the Palestinian flag in its place. Among the most common chants at these rallies — "globalize the Intifada" and "there is only one solution/Intifada Revolution" — are explicit calls for violence, including within America.

Following 9/11, I never thought I'd hear chants of or see signs with "death to America" at scale in our own country.  But that is precisely what we have witnessed on campuses across the country (e.g., University of Michigan and NYU).  The universities and their administrators, in particular, have been AWOL, whether because Jews don't rank high in the intersectional hierarchy, because the schools and faculty know they are responsible for inculcating anti-American extremism, or because the administrators themselves sympathize with those who would excuse Hamas.

Following our judicial education mission to Israel, I visited (along with other Federal judicial colleagues) Harvard Law School and Yale Law School to meet with students and to discuss the education mission with them.  What we learned is that the Jewish students are under assault in a way that far exceeds what would be tolerated against any other minority group, but shouldn't be tolerated against anybody.

For example, HLS students reported that:

  • A Harvard Law Review editor and a Civil Procedure teaching fellow was part of a group of students that encircled a Jewish Harvard Business School student, holding their keffiyehs open to surround and physically restrain him while screaming, "shame!" over and over.  (Here is the video.) 
  • HLS failed to prevent individuals (including individuals not affiliated with Harvard) from rallying and marching down the main hallway of an HLS building while banging drums, all during class, in flagrant violation of school rules. Jews took off their kippot (religious head coverings) and hid. Classes were disrupted and some stopped. When Jewish students went to the Office of the Dean of Students, which is co-located with the Office of Community Engagement, Equity, and Belonging, the doors were locked for the administrators' "protection" and the students were not permitted to seek refuge there.
  • In February, the HLS Alliance for Israel hosted an event with an Israeli journalist. The event was protested and interrupted, including students walking in front of the speaker, which is against HLS policy.
  • HLS Professor Jon Hanson on October 7th posted on his Twitter a podcast to "learn more about Israeli apartheid + occupation," and defended the Hamas attack by claiming "people on the underside of power who resist state violence and occupation will always be called terrorists." He conducted a blind vote in his Torts class about whether to discuss the Israel-Hamas conflict and planned to have his final exam include a question about Israel and Gaza.  Read more about Professor Hanson here.
  • Just yesterday, there were explicit calls for violence at Harvard ("Intifada, intifada, coming to America.").  An HLS student who sent me this video of the protest reported that it was led by Harvard students, not outsiders. In Israel, the Second Intifada took place between 2000-2005 and was marked by a rash of terrorist suicide bombings, not exactly something we want in America.


This is just a sampling of the reports I heard from Harvard students. The non-Jewish students with whom we met corroborated the Jewish students' descriptions of the campus environment as hostile, anti-Jewish, and infected by double standards when it comes to free speech.  As I understand the situation, there have been only limited or perhaps no repercussions from HLS for students violating school policies. Similar incidents have occurred at Yale

In DC, Georgetown University Law Center appears to have maintained a calm and relatively respectful atmosphere. George Washington University, not so much. As the pro-Hamas encampments picked up in size, volume, and intensity, GWU law students wrote to me to describe the hostile campus environment and to ask for support.  

What has surprised me even more about the campus conflagrations is the degree of anti-American radicalism. These universities definitely don't think much of the United States.  Just take some time to Google all of the faculty references to "Turtle Island" – a Native American term for North America – representing a refusal to even name the countries that constitute North America.  Here's a representative article – from Mohamed Abdou, a Columbia professor, no less – arguing that "Palestine's and Turtle Island's liberation are entwined."  Put aside Israel. Does North America require liberation?  Prof. Abdou seems to think so: "To end Palestinian occupation, the bewitched American/Canadian false dream must fall and be replaced[.]"

In contrast to their lame responses to pro-Hamas gatherings, the same universities had no problem taking action against far less threatening acts and speech.  Here is yet another example from Columbia/Barnard ("Barnard bans CU student who spewed white supremacist rhetoric outside Butler from campus").  But when it comes to harassing Jews or vandalizing American symbols, all of a sudden these schools have a newfound courage and commitment to free speech.  As Abigail Shrier put it in The Free Press, "the university administrators … suddenly discover they are free speech absolutists only when student protesters call for the death of their Jewish classmates."  

If universities really have had a change of heart regarding free speech, let's see concrete evidence of their repentance for having permitted the heckler's veto to be deployed against speech they don't like – which is precisely what Judges Ho and Branch previously objected to.

Q: Did the recent events at Columbia represent something of a tipping point? How did you come around to support a boycott? Can you speak to how the boycott of Columbia began?

"Something of a tippling point" is an understatement. Columbia's antisemitism levels are off the charts. The situation is truly res ipsa loquitur. Things got so bad there that a Columbia/Barnard Hillel rabbi had to tell Jewish students to go home for their own safety and not to return to campus until further notice.  (I just heard from a Columbia law student who said he hasn't been back to campus since Passover.)  The WSJ and other news outlets have even documented Columbia faculty supporting or participating in the campus unrest.  Here's a gem from the WSJ article: "Columbia social-work Prof. Tonika Boston told students that media reports of sexual violence against Israeli women during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack were inaccurate and designed to undermine support for Palestinians, according to a partial recording of the class."  Disgusting.  They're so sick with hatred for Jews – who they view as oppressive colonialists and arch-capitalists – that they teach utter nonsense, abandoning all pretense of academic rigor.  How can judges not doubt the value of the Columbia credential and the education it represents?

Watching the news and talking with students convinced me that someone in a position of authority in the legal system had to stand up to defend Jews and America.  So, in late April, I reached out to Judges Ho and Branch to say that, having visited various schools (and having heard from law students at several universities), I could attest that Jewish students are not exaggerating the level of intimidation and interference with their ability to learn in a peaceful environment.  I also expressed my deep concern over the anti-American fanaticism within these encampments and protests.  I asked what we could do – not just say – as judges to combat the campus insanity, recognizing that they had the courage to do so once before.  Over the course of our conversations, it became clear that the only effective action we could take is a clerkship boycott. 

The pro-Hamas protests and encampments across the country have only served to further highlight the free speech double-standards that motivated Judge Ho's and Judge Branch's boycott of Yale and Stanford in the first place.  Although there may be some close contenders, no one would dispute Columbia's status as ground zero for the nationwide disruptions.  (A Dartmouth faculty member, decrying the police action there against its campus encampment, said, "This is not Columbia.")   

Q: What has been the reaction to your announced boycott? Have you heard from other lawyers and law students?

I have lost count of the number of lawyers and law students who have expressed support for our position, including both current Columbia law students and alumni.  Judge Rudofsky has argued that judges need to "step up to the plate as leaders of the bar to help stop the spread of the virulent Jew-hatred that is being normalized on college campuses and elsewhere across the country[.]"  Several judges privately messaged me that they concurred in principle.  Characterizing the situation at Columbia as "pretty dire for the Jewish students," a circuit judge emailed me to say "good luck with the boycott project. I hope it brings change to the law school culture." 

Q: Are you concerned this boycott will hurt innocent students?

To begin with, if the school wants us to disassociate the bad apples from the good students, then they should tell us who the bad apples are.  As David Lat has noted, "if university presidents hope to reestablish campuses as a place of learning, they must discipline any student who violates the codes of conduct they already have in place."  Thus far, the school has refused to do so, or to mete out any real discipline.  But there's also a broader point.  If our boycott is successful, then no innocent students will be harmed – Columbia would address its systemic anti-Jewish and anti-American rot and get back to being a worthy institution.  If all of the judges who I suspect actually agree with us in principle were to boycott Columbia, there would be no need for one.  Does anyone doubt that a critical mass of judges would force Columbia to change?  Does anyone doubt that schools like Columbia care about the prestige they gain from clerkship placements?  It's not like our purpose is to punish well-behaved students; rather, any such undesired outcome is just a necessary byproduct of the very nature of a boycott.  Columbia's current prestige is undeserved, their tolerance of antisemitism is unacceptable, and our refusal to hire their graduates is designed to make that clear in the marketplace. 

No one has suggested another viable approach and, indeed, it is no different than that taken by many big donors – like billionaires Robert Kraft, Henry Swieca, and Leon Cooperman – who have pulled their money from Columbia.  Theirs is a funding boycott.  Ours is a credentialing boycott.  Both target the school broadly in order to influence it to change, in the spirit of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as discussed in my recent Wall Street Journal op-ed). 

No one would ever contend that a judicial boycott of Bob Jones University for prohibiting interracial dating somehow would have been unfair just because it would have hurt people who didn't support the school's policy.  See Bob Jones Univ. v. Johnson, 396 F. Supp. 597 (D.S.C. 1974) (federal educational assistance revoked when university violated Title VI by prohibiting interracial dating), aff'd, 529 F.2d 514 (4th Cir. 1975); cf. Graham F. Whittington, Ultimate Discrimination?: Sunday Play, Sports Schedules, and Evaluating the Effectiveness of Anti-Discrimination Laws, 97 N.C. L. Rev. 933, 994 n.119 (2019) ("For instance, upon determining in 1970 that racist admissions policies at BYU and Bob Jones University were in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the IRS warned that it could no longer give tax-exempt status to private colleges and universities that perpetuated racially discriminatory practices."). 

Law professors have favored boycotts for their own ends.  A 2008 news article reports that "[o]rganizations representing thousands of legal educators say they will boycott the Association of American Law Schools annual meeting in January if it is held as scheduled at the San Diego Manchester Grand Hyatt, a hotel whose owner has donated $125,000 to an initiative to outlaw same-sex marriage in California."  Did that boycott harm innocent hotel workers?  Almost certainly.  But the legal academy didn't seem to care much about that because they believed in the principle they were trying to vindicate.  In our case, if enough judges would join the boycott of Columbia, then the need for one would be obviated.  Indeed, AALS apparently caved to the threatened boycott in 2009. 

In more recent (and somewhat ironic) news, a very large group of academics announced an academic boycott of Columbia University "in solidarity with protesters demanding that the University divest from companies with ties to Israel." 

Q: What do you say to those who worry that the boycott is politically motivated?

Americans from all walks of life are upset with what's happening at Columbia.  Major law firms are speaking out.  We're in good company with former Columbia donors, as noted above.  There is no reason judges cannot show similar leadership.  We have done nothing more than take a principled stand against antisemitism and anti-Americanism.  We have not said anything about Republicans or Democrats, specific elected officials, policies or laws being debated in Congress, or what actions, if any, the political branches should take with regard to campus activities, foreign students who support terrorist groups, or the administration's conduct of international affairs.

But if you're looking for overtly political, controversial statements from Federal judges, there are plenty of examples.  In 2021, a federal judge publicly criticized the Trump administration's judicial nominees.  In 2020, in the wake of the BLM protests, another federal judge opined that while a judge can try to be fair, "that doesn't mean that the system is fair" and thus "the attack on the courthouses in particular, is really a wakeup call for all of us" – as if there is any legitimate justification or explanation for physically attacking a United States courthouse.   Of course, everyone will recall the case of Justice Ginsburg, who said "I can't imagine what this place would be – I can't imagine what the country would be – with Donald Trump as our president[.]"  Or consider another federal district judge, who advised in print that "Democrats might want to consider a bolder approach to judicial appointments" because "[a] federal judiciary consisting only of conservatives and moderates and bereft of judges who think like [Justice Thurgood] Marshall will not attempt to halt or reverse many years of conservative decisions and will constrain rather than expand our notions of constitutional justice." The Glorious Jurisprudence of Thurgood Marshall, 7 Harv. L. & Pol'y Rev. 113, 137 (2013).  These represent just a sample of what's out there; while they might not strike our critics as controversial political statements, they surely are to most Americans.  

Our statement condemning antisemitism, anti-Americanism, and free-speech double standards is mild by comparison.  If it's improperly political to say that discrimination, double standards, and hatred of America are wrong, then I'm not sure that judges may ever speak about anything meaningful at all.  I suppose I could be quite happy with that standard, if everyone will abide by it, but clearly that's not what the judiciary has believed or how it has behaved.

Q: What is the endgame of the boycott? Do you expect Columbia to change its behavior? Will other schools take any action? How will you know if the boycott is successful or unsuccessful?

The endgame is to get Columbia to take a hard look in the mirror and think critically about who they're admitting, who they're hiring to teach, and what type of citizens they're releasing into our country.  In an ideal world, a sufficient number of judges would join us such that these institutions would change.  If more judges were to join, we have little doubt Columbia would fear a drop in its clerkship placements, various rankings, applications, matriculations, and ultimately reputation.  From there, it's a short trip to redemption.  We hope other institutions are in active listening mode and are receiving the message that if they behave as Columbia has, they will face the same scrutiny and shame.

The needle is, in fact, moving.  At least one law firm subsequently announced that it would scrutinize new law grads for participation in the pro-Hamas encampments, while the Russell Berrie Foundation said it would pause its substantial funding to Columbia.  The donor boycott is real.

At the end of the day, however, if the only salutary effect of our boycott is that it shines a greater spotlight on Columbia's double standards, antisemitism, and anti-Americanism such that others take action in one form or another, I'll call that progress.  Either way, I couldn't stand idly by – while promising to bear witness to the Hamas atrocities, and exclaiming "Never Again!" – as these campus revolutionaries create a hostile environment for Jewish students and trash the United States.