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Harvard Law School Organizations Petition to Denounce Professor Adrian Vermeule’s ‘Highly Offensive’ Online Rhetoric

Eleven Harvard Law School student organizations have signed a statement calling for administrators to denounce highly
Eleven Harvard Law School student organizations have signed a statement calling for administrators to denounce highly By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By Emmy M. Cho and Isabella B. Cho, Crimson Staff Writers

Eleven Harvard Law School student organizations have signed a statement calling for administrators to denounce what they characterize as “highly offensive, discriminatory, and violent statements in online posts” by Law School professor Adrian C. Vermeule ’90.

Addressed to five Law School deans, the statement — signed by organizations including the Harvard Parity Project, the Equal Democracy Project, and the Black Law Students Association, among others — describes Vermeule’s digital rhetoric as “harmful to democracy” and “unbelievably divisive,” with a particular emphasis on his recent allegations of election fraud.

The statement urges Law School administrators to condemn Vermeule’s “spread of inaccurate conspiracy theories about the election” and conduct an investigation to determine whether Vermeule is “spreading misinformation or discriminatory content in his classes.” It also calls for the creation of at least two sections of HLS 2000: “Administrative Law” — a class Vermeule teaches — per semester, and a guarantee that first-year law students will not be required to take a course with Vermeule.

“To work at Harvard Law School is to be granted a platform and a level of legitimacy,” the statement reads. “Prof. Vermeule is abusing this platform in order to undermine democracy and delegitimize the results of the election.”

An appendix following the statement contains dozens of screenshots of Vermeule’s tweets — many of which he has since deleted — organized into categories that include “Election Disinformation,” “Offensive and Violent Statements,” “Religious Intolerance,” and “Anti-LBGTQ+,” among others.

In several tweets since the election, Vermeule has thrown weight behind President Donald J. Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud, according to the screenshots. “Lol the election isn’t over until Team Joe fixes up your ballot for you,” he wrote in one tweet.

Vermeule has come under fire for his online rhetoric before. In February, he sparked outrage after posting a tweet comparing attendees of the Summit on Principle Conservatism to concentration camp detainees.

In response to the petition, Vermeule wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson that, though he supports the right to free speech, this freedom “does not include the right to falsely accuse people of illegal activity like discrimination and violence.”

“I take this attack on my character very seriously,” he wrote. “But I am quite confident that Harvard will uphold its longstanding moral and contractual commitments as an institution to protecting academic freedom and free speech.”

Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal did not respond to a request for comment.

Nicole M. Rubin, who co-wrote the statement, said she felt motivated to take action after realizing several students felt uncomfortable with what Vermeule posted online. She said many students documented Vermeule’s rhetoric by taking screenshots of his tweets.

“Clearly, people felt that this was problematic enough that they took a screenshot, they saved it, and they knew where in their phone it was,” she said. “That’s how we got access to some of the tweets, actually, which made me feel even more inclined to write this letter.”

The Equal Democracy Project wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson that it decided to sign the letter following a majority vote of members because Vermeule, “bolstered by his HLS pedigree,” was “contributing to the deterioration of our democracy.”

“While we recognize that Harvard affiliates speak on myriad matters, and that expressing differing opinions is crucial to both academic and democratic discourse, Professor Vermeule’s baseless suggestions of election fraud go beyond the pale of opining and merit condemnation,” the Equal Democracy Project statement reads.

Emma R. Leibowitz, a Law School student who helped write the statement, said though it is important for administrators to consider how online rhetoric influences national politics, they should be equally concerned with how it impacts students within the classroom.

“Your voice as a legal professor matters when you are saying election results were false,” Leibowitz said. “But your voice also matters when you’re a teacher in a classroom and need to ensure that there’s a safe learning environment for students. I think that this is the dual prong of our point.”

Rubin highlighted that, rather than punish or censor Vermeule, the statement aims to hold faculty such as Vermeule accountable for their digital actions and ensure students can navigate a safe learning environment at the Law School.

“What we mainly want to stress is that this is about the harmful effects that this may have on students,” she said. “It is not about censorship, and it is not about punishment — none of the things that we asked for are punitive. We asked for the University to denounce what he’s been saying.”

“We’ve played a really foundational role in shaping the leadership of this country,” Rubin added. “Therefore, I think that it is the responsibility of the University, and specifically the Law School, to set forth what the expectations are and what the Law School stands for.”

—Staff writer Emmy M. Cho can be reached at emmy.cho@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at isabella.cho@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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