Conservative law student alleges harassment during online chat about abortion ruling

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Abortion rights demonstrators protest outside the United States Supreme Court as the court rules in the Dobbs v Women's Health Organization abortion case, overturning the landmark Roe v Wade abortion decision in Washington, U.S., June 24, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

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  • American University investigating heated class group chat following leak of Dobbs draft opinion
  • Controversies over free speech on campus have roiled several law schools in the past year

June 28 - American University is investigating eight law students after a conservative classmate claimed they harassed him during an online group chat about the U.S. Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, one of the students under investigation confirmed Monday.

The incident followed the May 2 leak of a draft of the decision, which was released in final form on Friday and overturned Roe v. Wade, reversing a Constitutional right to an abortion.

A male law student who described himself as Republican and “deeply religious,” filed a complaint with the university alleging his classmates harassed and threatened him due to his political affiliation and religion, according to a May 25 letter from the university’s Office of Equity & Title IX.

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A redacted version of that letter with no student names included was made public Friday by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit free speech advocacy group that is providing assistance to one of the students under investigation.

Daniel Brezina, the only student FIRE identified as among those under investigation by the university, confirmed the veracity of the letter and the group chat transcript FIRE posted to its website.

A spokesperson for the Washington, D.C., university declined Monday to comment on the inquiry, saying that federal privacy law prohibits discussing investigations that involve students.

But they said the university is “guided by its commitment to the right to free expression” and that its student code of conduct is “designed to support a safe, honest, and inclusive community.”

Law schools including those at Yale, Georgetown, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania have each dealt with high-profile free speech controversies over the past year.

Brezina said in an interview Monday that American's inquiry is ongoing.

The online group chat was used by the more than 80 students in his 1L class section, he said.

According to the transcript, the May 2 chat began with a student posting the leaked draft Dobbs opinion. Another student speculated that Supreme Court decisions protecting interracial marriage, same-sex marriage and access to contraception could be next.

“As a Republican, I find it insulting that conservatives would be thought of as overturning people’s civil rights like Obergefell or Loving,” the complainant responded.

Several students wrote that the group chat was not the place for the complainant to share his personal beliefs, according to the transcript.

“If you don’t have the deceny [sic] to shut up while people come to terms with the fact that they’ve just lost a constitutional right then that says a lot about you,” wrote one of the students now under investigation.

The complainant later wrote in the chat that he was being asked to silence his personal opinions, yet his classmates were not, the transcript said.

"I'm disappointed that they are investigating us just for having this kind of disagreement," Brezina said. "There was nothing harassing in the group chat."

(CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said FIRE was assisting all the law students under investigation. It is only assisting one on non-legal matters.)

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com