Easy Call: Prof. Yoo’s Secret Class

Prof. John Yoo of the University of California at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall  School of Law can’t do anything these days without attracting controversy, whether it be writing a book or appearing on The Daily Show. Yoo, you may recall, is the former Bush administration lawyer responsible for writing key legal advisory opinions justifying the use of waterboarding and other extreme measures to interrogate captured terrorists and suspects of terrorist activity. Since joining the law school faculty, he has been more or less continuously attacked by students, critics and protesters who believe that the memos he authored compel his dismissal, disbarment, prosecution as a war criminal, or worse.

Now Berkeley is being criticized for allowing Yoo to hold his spring semester Constitutional Law class in a secret location known only to class members. Anti-Yoo protesters demand to be permitted to disrupt his class in the name of free speech and campus discourse. Yoo, in his typically provocative fashion, says they are welcome to attend his class once they get admitted to the law school and pay their tuition.

The school and the rational students supporting the secret class tactic are correct. As the campus newspaper “The Daily Californian” noted in an editorial:

Boalt Hall and UC Berkeley have a responsibility to ensure the best possible learning experience for students, and a disruptive or loud environment infringes on students’ right to the kind of education they’ve paid for. The controversial decision by the administration to keep Yoo’s spring semester class a secret does this, which is more important than the right of others, outside of the campus, to protest at his class…Protesters certainly have a right to express their views about Yoo as they wish, but by disrupting classes, they’re hurting the students more than the professor. It’s not unreasonable for them to have to wait until class is out to picket and make their views known.”

The copious online objections to the paper’s ethically-correct verdict show how self-righteousness blunts reason. The school  has no obligation to provide a teaching platform for war criminals asserts one. But Yoo is not a war criminal; writing a legal opinion, even a mistaken one like Yoo’s, does not force anyone to follow it, and there is a difference between helping a client break the law, which is unethical and illegal, and devising a good faith argument why a particular action doesn’t break the law at all. That’s what Yoo did at the Justice Department, and it what lawyers do.  Another critic says, “Arguing that ‘his students deserve to learn’, they fail to question just what Yoo is teaching.  Since the public is kept in the dark about classroom content, we have no way of knowing whether the Torture Professor continues to misinterpret the Constitution with views that have been repudiated by the Bush administration itself.”

Nope, and there is no way, unless Yoo or a member of his class decides to reveal his lectures. Even then, only the opinions of  Yoo’s students and his employers matter regarding what is legitimate class content . All professors have their points of view, and many of those views meet furious opposition from other scholars. Nobody has the unilateral right to declare that a professor’s content isn’t worth teaching except the University itself, and obviously it believes that Yoo has something valuable to impart. The protesters should be protesting the school’s policies, not disrupting the education of students who choose to take advantage of them.

Hiding Prof. Yoo’s classes is the right thing to do. The protesters have a right to their opinions and the right to express them, but they don’t have the right to muffle Yoo’s views just because they are sure he is wrong. I think he’s wrong too, but if I didn’t want to hear him, I’d enroll in a different class.

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