Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Defending the Federalist Society from Cathy Young and Co.

About a year and a half ago, The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy decided to remove Cathy Young from their speakers list. She didn’t like this one bit. The Federalist Society didn’t like her complaining one bit, but was more reserved in its response. This all went down while I was interning at the Federalist Society. I was unable to respond at that time, since my employment there would make it appear as if I spoke for the Federalist Society as a whole. But I did jot down my own remarks on a word document, and I re-discovered that document in an overlooked folder today. Since I am now unencumbered by employment at FedSoc, I’ve decided to post my comments from the time.

As a frequent reader of Reason Magazine, I am very familiar with Cathy Young’s work. I neither adore it nor detest it. She and I have agreed about a lot, from Elliot Rodger to “fem-splaining” to Linda Tirado. We have also disagreed about a lot, from the Paul Nungesser rape case (I think he’s guilty, she does not) to the desirability of “yes-means-yes” affirmative consent laws (I support them, she thinks they’re absurd). Overall, I still see her as an ally of the libertarian movement, as someone who’s “on our team,” and someone who can occasionally improve the feminist movement through pointed criticism of it, even if she’s not as progressive as I would like. I just wanted to point that out before I begin.

I will post some excerpts from Cathy’s comments in italics, and respond to them in order.

  • “some right-of-center organizations now seem terrified of challenging rape-culture orthodoxy. My personal encounter with this development involves the Federalist Society, the venerable national association of conservative and libertarian lawyers, law professors and students.”

If they were terrified of challenging the orthodoxy, why would they continue to recommend speakers like
Heather MacDonald? After this spat went down, I attended a speaking event at the National Lawyers Convention where MacDonald and Greg Lukianoff of FIRE teamed up against an overmatched US government worker on campus sexual assault issues. I normally love Lukianoff, but amazingly, I agreed with the government worker on this occasion. Some of the things MacDonald said made me cringe they were so backwards. Blatant, explicit victim-blaming – “if they didn’t get drunk and wear such slutty outfits it never would have happened!” type arguments – came from MacDonald’s mouth while the crowd largely cheered. And Young claims this organization dropped her because they were too frightened to speak out against the left’s narrative? There must be some other reason.

  • “on November 11, Meyer called out of the clear blue to inform me that the Federalist Society had to drop me from the list of approved speakers due to extremely negative feedback from people who had attended the latest events and found them offensive.”

Never mind the dubious claim that this call came “out of the clear blue” when she has already alluded to at least one prior warning – the procedure by which they informed her of the decision is less important than the motivations behind the decision itself. On that matter, Young is conflating a hecklers veto with basic brand control: a private organization choosing those individuals it feels best represent the message it wishes to disseminate. It’s the difference between the NFL banning Chris Kluwe for his political statements, and the Vikings declining to re-sign Chris Kluwe for his political statements.

  • “All in all, I got a clear message that the topics themselves were unwelcome; at one point, Meyer said that the phrase “false accusations of rape” should never have appeared in the title of an event.”

The Federalist Society’s continued discussion on the topics of rape and sexual assault law shows that the “clear message” Young claims to have received was mistaken. Perhaps the Federalist Society does not believe “false accusations of rape” should be the centerpiece of the message it wishes to convey on those topics. I don’t either. If so, that is not censorship: it’s merely selecting those viewpoints it agrees with as the ones which will be presented under its name.

  • “[FedSoc’s] willingness to cave to those who would stifle debate is distressing”

It is not caving to those who would stifle debate to prioritize some arguments in the debate over others. Perhaps the Federalist Society wants to debate issues X, Y, and Z within a given topic, such that giving undue attention to frivolous issues A, B, and C within that topic would truly detract from the more important debate at hand. Not all content-based restrictions originate from a “willingness to cave to those who would stifle debate,” nor (as one commenter alleged) from being “terrified of challenging” opposing viewpoints.

Young and the commenters who sympathize with her seem to be operating on the assumption that the Federalist Society secretly agrees with everything Cathy Young says, but is just too cowardly to admit it. What if they disagree with her? What if they think (as I do) that false accusations of rape aren’t actually all that common, or that in any case they should not be the focal point of the conservative/libertarian message about the subject? Just because an organization no longer wishes to endorse a message does not mean its motivation for withdrawing support is a fear of criticism.

The Federalist Society also does not include Sonia Sotomayor in its list of recommended speakers; is that because it’s terrified of challenging originalism?

Another commenter by the username of Akil Alleyne lamented the “liberal calumnies” who tried to censor campus speech, and opined that “FedSoc should be more willing to support its student chapters and speakers when they push back against these calumnies.”

Well sure, it should, except that the negative feedback to which FedSoc was responding did not come from liberal calumnies – it came from the student chapters themselves! If the Federalist Society solicited feedback from college campuses at large, I suspect very many of its speakers would receive negative reviews; after all, the Federalist Society is founded on the premise that liberal bias pervades American law schools. That Cathy Young was receiving negative reviews and offending people even within Federalist Society Student Chapter circles casts doubt on her narrative that the decision was based on pushback from the left.

That’s all for now, but more on Cathy’s views will follow in my next post.

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