U.S. Supreme Court's Alito calls law school free speech 'abysmal'

Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut November 12, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
  • State of campus free speech 'disgraceful', says Justice Alito
  • Comments come as some conservative judges boycott Yale clerks

(Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Tuesday called the state of free speech on college and law school campuses "dangerous" and "abysmal," amid a boycott by other conservative jurists against hiring clerks from his alma mater, Yale Law School.

Alito, a member of the U.S. Supreme Court's 6-3 conservative majority, said during an evening event hosted by the Heritage Foundation that "law students should be free to speak their minds without worrying about the consequences."

But he said "based on what I have read and what has been told to me by students," some law schools are "really not carrying out their responsibility" to protect students' speech and "have their ideas tested in rational debating."

"It's pretty abysmal, and it's disgraceful," Alito said. "It's dangerous for our future as a united democratic country. We depend on freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is essential."

Alito did not cite any law schools by name. But his comments echoed those of other critics on the right who claim colleges and law schools are promoting censorship and stifling conservatives' ability to share their views.

U.S. Circuit Judges James Ho, an appointee of Republican President Donald Trump on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, last month called for judges to boycott hiring Yale students as clerks to protest what he called rampant "cancel culture" on its campus and incidents in which students had disrupted conservative speakers.

Among the events Ho cited was one at Yale in March, in which students supporting the LGBTQ community disrupted a talk involving a lawyer who defended a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch, a fellow Trump appointee on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, on Oct. 7 became the first judge to publicly join the boycott. Several other judges have declined or deemed it ill-advised.

Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken in a letter to alumni on Oct. 12 did not reference the judges' boycott but outlined moves it had taken to "reaffirm our enduring commitment to the free and unfettered exchange of ideas."

Liberal Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan on Friday said that from her perspective as Harvard Law School's former dean, people should feel respected when being spoken to but it is "really important for people to feel free to express their views."

"If I put a thumb on the scales, the thumb on the scale is to encourage robust debate and exchange of views and for people to give each other the benefit of the doubt," she said at an event at the University of Pennsylvania.

Read more:

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2nd Trump-appointed judge publicly says she will not hire Yale clerks

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.