On March 10 at Yale Law School, the #1 ranked law school in the United States, over 100 students disrupted a debate, ironically, about a recent First Amendment case. The Yale Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies had invited U.S. Supreme Court litigators Kristen Waggoner and Monica Miller to discuss briefs they filed in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, on behalf of their clients, Alliance Defending Freedom and American Humanist Society, respectively. But the protestors attempted to drown out the event before it even began, even though the organizers had planned a time for questions and answers at the end. Such disorder at law schools has dire consequences for the quality of legal education, the future of the legal profession, order in the courts, and the rule of law.
The future lawyers claimed their words and behavior constituted “their form of ‘free speech.’” But these law students shouted to Waggoner that they would “literally fight you” and “hurt you.” Protesters also grabbed fellow law students and “pounded on classroom walls.”
These law students should pay closer attention in constitutional law class. True threats, fighting words, incitement to imminent disorder, and lawless action are not protected free speech under the First Amendment. Freedom of speech, Professor Erwin Chemerinsky explained, does not include the so-called heckler’s veto or a right to shout down others and prevent them from being heard. Clearly, schools do have the power to discipline students who express true threats of intent to harm, actual disruption, or a feasible disruption.
Protesting at events is disruptive to law students who are interested in learning how to advocate and find opportunities for peaceful resolutions of disputes. Disruptions, like the one at Yale Law, deprive students—the other attendees, as well as the protesters themselves—of an opportunity to learn.
And are these law students even interested in becoming part of the legal profession? A good legal education goes beyond critical thinking about substance. Former Chief Justice Warren Burger told law school administrators: “[L]awyers who know how to think but have not learned how to behave are [a] menace and a liability, not an asset, to the administration of justice.”
Practicing attorneys are subject to higher standards of conduct for their words and behavior than members of the public. An attorney is an officer of the court and a representative of the rule of law. To become a practicing lawyer, every state and D.C. requires a character and fitness application. As one bar preparation organization BARBRI advises, “Before entering the bar application process, or law school, make sure nothing you present publicly would question your character. Your social media presence should not raise any concerns about your character, professionalism, integrity, or overall fitness to join the legal community.” Video of this incident, unfortunately, is available all over social media and has attracted the attention of federal judges.
Once admitted to a bar, a lawyer must continue to comply with a code of conduct. The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct state that lawyers shall not “embarrass, delay, or burden a third person”, must have “fairness to opposing party counsel”, and prohibit “conduct intended to disrupt.” Furthermore, the job of the lawyer is to interpret the facts and law to represent a client, not to “state a personal opinion as to the justness of a cause.” Model Rules state that “professional, courteous and civil attitude toward all persons involved in the legal system.” Use of profanities does subject lawyers to discipline. The law students had shouted “b___” to a lawyer and “F___!” to the student organization sponsoring the event. They raised their middle fingers to the law professor who was moderating the event and trying to gavel down the interrupting law students. The protesting students chanted “Shame! Shame!”
Lawyers who curse, name-call, insult, and threaten physical violence to other lawyers—in recent disciplinary actions in states like Connecticut, California, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas—have been sanctioned with monetary fees, contempt of court, suspension from practice of law, and even with jail time for violating state legal disciplinary codes.
If these future lawyers can’t listen to members of the bar discuss a case in the classroom, are they able to sit and listen at an opposing counsel’s table? The legal profession also recognizes a duty to provide counsel, even to unpopular clients. Civil rights lawyer Denise Lieberman explained, “If lawyers are vilified for accepting unpopular clients, then those most in need of representation might find it impossible to obtain counsel.” What is really a shame is that the future leaders of the legal profession think that such conduct is acceptable.
Maya Noronha is a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Law Center. She is a civil rights lawyer and was former current development editor of the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics.