Six months ago, William Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School and founder and publisher of Legal Insurrection, wrote two blog posts detailing the honest, but negative, history of Black Lives Matter. Students and faculty immediately called upon the school to take action against Jacobson for writing the posts.
Jacobson joined the show on July 1 to explain why students and faculty were actively speaking out against him. He returns to the show today to share what transpired after more than a dozen student groups tried to mobilize a campus-wide boycott of his class and faculty quickly denounced him for his posts.
We also cover these stories:
- Attorney General William Barr says he believes Russia is behind last week’s hack into several federal agencies.
- A massive spending bill, likely to be signed into law by President Trump soon, is poised to result in most Americans getting $600 from the federal government.
- Trump’s campaign files a new petition with the Supreme Court asking that the court reverse several cases having to do with Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballots.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: It is my pleasure to welcome back to the show professor William Jacobson, a Cornell law professor and the founder and publisher of Legal Insurrection. Professor Jacobson, welcome back to “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
William Jacobson: Thank you for having me back. I appreciate it.
Allen: So, we last spoke almost exactly six months ago, and you shared about two blog posts, which you had written for Legal Insurrection, which detailed the history and the true mission of Black Lives Matter, being to further a Marxist agenda. Can you remind us [of] just this whole situation, what exactly was said? What you wrote in those blog posts?
Jacobson: Yes. So, I run a website called Legal Insurrection, and I’ve actually covered the Black Lives Matter movement since the Ferguson riots back in 2014. So I was very familiar with it, and I was very familiar with the shooting of Michael Brown and the controversy over it.
So when George Floyd died, there were riots, everybody knows, that’s not news. And one of the things I noticed was one of the themes of the marches was people walking with their hands raised above their heads chanting, “Don’t shoot.” And that was the Michael Brown “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative.
And I immediately recognized that to be false because I covered it at the time, I covered the [former Attorney General] Eric Holder, Obama Justice Department report and investigation, which said that never happened, his hands were not raised and he wasn’t saying “don’t shoot.”
In fact, he was shot and killed by the police because he punched a police officer in the face and tried to steal his gun.
So, I wrote a post, which I’d written before. I’ve covered this before and I said, “Reminder, the Michael Brown ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ is a fabricated narrative.” … That triggered a reaction at Cornell Law School—where I teach and have taught for almost 13 years—that led to alumni attempts to get me fired; led to letters or emails, I should say, to the dean.
I also wrote a second post right after my first one, which dealt with the rioting and the looting, and I severely condemned it. And I pointed out that this was reflective of the goals of the leaders of the movement—which is to tear down our society—which are Marxist, and which are anti-capitalist.
And so those two posts combined, but it was mostly the Michael Brown one that triggered it, but those two posts combined led to a concerted effort, both to fire me and to denounce me and to otherwise damage me.
So there was an email campaign by alumni, some alumni, obviously not thousands, but enough that the dean noticed to get me fired.
They were extremely upset that in this emotional time period that I would write something like that about the Michael Brown case. They didn’t dispute that I was right about it, but they felt it was highly insensitive and that to have someone like me on the faculty was inappropriate and he should take action.
Twenty-one of my colleagues signed a letter denouncing me in The Cornell [Daily] Sun, the student newspaper. And in very harsh terms, essentially calling me racist. And they didn’t name me in that letter to the Sun, but it was clear, it was about me. And in fact, the draft of the letter was circulated to students at the law school before it even appeared in The Cornell Sun. So everybody knew it was about me.
And then students organized a boycott of my course. Fifteen student groups organized a boycott of my course. And then the dean issued a statement denouncing me, saying I have academic freedom and I have job security. It’s not tenure, but it’s something similar. And therefore they weren’t going to take any disciplinary action against me, but what horrible things I wrote and expressed in very pejorative terms his view of me.
So I think that all came together and that’s the beginning of the story. And I can certainly get into more detail as to what happened after it.
Allen: Yeah. Well, if you would, you’ve set up very nicely. Thank you for just giving us that review of everything that happened.
So at that point, what was running through your head? Because, like you say, you’ve been at Cornell Law for almost 13 years, it’s no secret that you’re conservative. Everyone knows that on the campus.
So where was your thought process as far as, “I don’t know how this is going to end. Am I going to have a job in a month?” What were you processing?
Jacobson: Right. Well, the attacks on me came as part of a tax on a lot of, I would say, non-liberal professors, maybe not even necessarily conservative, after George Floyd. Any sort of criticism of Black Lives Matter, any sort of criticism of the rioting was enough to whip up an online mob against people.
So, before this happened to me, I had witnessed it happen to other professors, the Change.org petition with thousands of signatures, the protests, all those sort of things.
So I knew what was coming or what I feared would becoming and so I had to make a decision. I could sit back and let it unfold, or I could be more proactive.
And what pushed me from sitting back and watching it unfold to being proactive is some people at the law school. I won’t even identify them by student, faculty, staff, or otherwise, but some people at the law school were very upset with what they saw going on about me.
While they weren’t willing to speak out publicly against it, because they didn’t want to be targeted, they did forward to me internal communications—emails, text messages, things that were circulating at the law school.
And then I realized that this wasn’t going to go away. It wasn’t just going to be a few alumni writing into the dean that the faculty who signed the letter against me, or at least some of them, were in fact coordinating with the student groups. And so I decided that I couldn’t just sit back and watch unfold with me what had unfolded with so many others.
So I wrote a blog post about what was happening, which went fairly viral. It got picked up. I was invited on to Laura Ingraham’s show, got picked up by a lot of radio shows, got picked up by podcasts, including the one I’m on now, which was extremely helpful.
And so I decided to grab the narrative and to frame the issue as it properly should be framed, which is a complete intolerance for opposing viewpoints at Cornell Law School, a mob mentality, a fairly classic cancel culture.
A lot of people say, “Well, what’s cancel culture? You just don’t like being criticized.” What cancel culture is is using the power that people have or think they have over your job and over your reputation to try to coerce you into not speaking or changing your view or apologizing. So it’s coercion rather than persuasion.
And in fact, when I wrote my first blog post about what was happening, I gave a challenge. I said that I will be willing to publicly debate, and I am asking the law school to sponsor it when school resumes in the fall.
At that time we didn’t know if it would be in-person or virtual, a debate over Black Lives Matter. And I will debate a representative of these student groups and whichever faculty member they choose. So it wasn’t going to be me against a student. It would be me essentially against a faculty member of their choice, plus a student of their choice.
And I made that offer. That offer was immediately rejected. They have no interest in debating me. So this was not about criticism. If they wanted to criticize me, they would have had a perfect platform to do it. In fact, they would have had a platform that the whole law school could have seen. I asked that it’d be livestream so the rest of the interested people could see it. And that was flatly rejected.
So once this happened, there was an absolute outpouring of support for me, really, from around the country, but also from within the law school.
I received several hundred—I haven’t counted them—hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails of support from people who saw me on TV or read about it. There was a fair amount of news coverage of it.
And then there was a lot of people within the law school. A lot of students who emailed me and said, “Look, I can’t afford to put myself at risk of being called these horrible names on the internet like you’re being called, but please understand that the student activists do not represent the whole school. They do not represent the whole student body. You have a lot of support within the building, but it’s quiet support. Everybody is afraid to speak out.”
Things developed and things percolated along for a while. I didn’t know what would happen with the student boycott. Fifteen student groups … circulated on law school list serves that I was not allowed to respond on.
I asked the dean for permission to do it. Never got a response as to using a student list to respond to these accusations. And so I didn’t know what would happen.
As it turned out, we had a fairly normal sign-up. It was almost like nothing happened with the boycott. We were oversubscribed several times over, like we always are, and filled the course. …
That is the short-term end of the story, but I continue to work in a very hostile work environment. I continue to work with people, almost every one of whom that I would have daily contact with if we were in-person, in session.
Everyone on my hallway signed a letter against me. Not a single one of them approached me before they ran to The Cornell Sun. And some of these people I’d known for over a decade. Some of them were newer and I didn’t really know that well, but some of them I’ve known for over a decade.
Some of them I would have classified as friends, not necessarily social friends, we didn’t hang out on the weekends, that sort of thing, but they were work friends, not one of them had the common human decency to approach me beforehand. So that’s the environment I work in.
Allen: Well, obviously, it’s so encouraging that you do still have a job that students, even though they were being pressured by these 15 student groups to boycott your class, your classes were full. Students wanted to get your perspective to hear what you had to say in your classes.
But obviously, that kind of situation, it takes a toll on anyone when you are put in this position of being attacked from all sides. And like you say, there’s individuals who you thought were your friends who are not even coming to you to ask for your perspective, but are running straight to the paper.
How do you feel like this whole situation impacted you personally?
Jacobson: Well, I don’t want to downplay the stress. It was extremely stressful because I didn’t know how it would play out when it first started. And I’d seen these other professors who even if they didn’t get fired, were really turned into piranhas on their campuses, couldn’t walk alone because students would harass them, had protesters outside their houses.
There was somebody at University of Central Florida where they actually showed up at his house to protest. So I didn’t really know, but I will tell you, it was extraordinarily stressful for a while. …
I think it would have turned out differently if I didn’t have job protection. I think the dean’s statement that they’re not going to take action against me because I have academic freedom as a faculty member and job protection actually was a very pernicious statement because it sends a message to all the people who don’t have job protection that they are at risk.
… And I think that’s the main downside here, is that a lot of students—from what they tell me—say it’s a still, to this day, a very hostile atmosphere at the law school.
I know that not a single faculty person spoke up about the boycott of my course, which is truly astounding. We have faculty members who say some really crazy things, both at the law school and at the university, and they never get treated by the administration the way that I was treated. And they certainly never get treated [that way] by students. We have people who are Occupy Wall Street supporters, that sort of craziness.
So I think it’s a really negative atmosphere at the law school. I think with time it [has] probably eased a little bit, but I don’t think it’s over. I don’t think the students have given up. I think the faculty members will hold a grudge.
I think that my situation is, I don’t technically have tenure because clinical faculty at Cornell University, regardless of which school they’re in, cannot have tenure. So at the law school, I have something that the American Bar Association requires, which is called “job security,” reasonably equivalent of tenure.
And what that means is, presumptively renewable, five-year contracts. That’s the equivalent of tenure, where your contract rolls over for another five years unless they have good cause to not renew it.
Mine is up in a year and a half and I am fully expecting that fight and that battle because I think a lot of the faculty members who signed this malicious statement against me are going to try to sabotage me. So it’s not over by any means. But right now it’s a little bit quiet, but I think it’s probably a little bit of calm before the next storm.
Allen: Did any of your colleagues or the dean or even any of the students that had spoken out against you, written those emails, did any of them come to you and say, “Hey, maybe I still agree with what I wrote, but I should have at least talked with you first”? Or was there any sort of attempt to reach out and say, “All right. We do kind of see your side and maybe we should have handled it a little bit differently”?
Jacobson: Not a one. Not a single person.
Jacobson: And the dean has caught a lot of flack. The National Association of Scholars wrote a scathing open letter, demanding that he retract the statement against me. As far as I know, he’s not responded to that.
The faculty who signed the letter were excoriated by professor Jonathan Turley in a column at his website over the summer, which got many, many thousands of shares. It went semi-viral in which he completely excoriated them for damaging, not just free speech in a technical First Amendment sense, but the ethos of free exchange of ideas that’s supposed to take place in higher education.
So I know they were very stung by those things. And I think they were particularly stunned by Jonathan Turley’s because he’s a liberal. He’s a liberal law professor who is willing to speak out against this cancel culture, which is conducted almost exclusively by liberals. … They were really upset about that.
And so, no, but not one person has said, “Maybe we should have given you a phone call.” They took issue with certain wording I used in my blog post. Not one of them contacted me and said, “Would you explain to us why you use that term?” or “Why you use that phrase?” or “Why you believe they’re Marxists?”
Of course, I’ve been completely vindicated substantively on the Black Lives Matter movement. Since then, the rioting continued throughout summer.
The leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement were at least the most visible. It’s something of a dispersed movement, but the most prominent organization of the Black Lives Matter movement openly announced, “We are trained Marxist activists.” … The defunding of the police became their call to action.
So all of the criticisms I had of the movement and the criticisms were not that they support better policing, I’m in favor of that, not that they were upset about what happened to George Floyd, I’m upset about that. I think the policemen are nonetheless entitled to due process and the presumption of innocent, … like any accused criminal.
But what they tried to do is, they tried to frame it and the dean tried to frame it that I was criticizing, essentially, a movement to better black lives. And that’s not what my criticism was.
So I’ve been vindicated. Not a single faculty member, a single administrator has said, “Maybe we could have handled this better. Maybe we shouldn’t have rushed. Maybe we reacted in a way that did not reflect well on Cornell Law School. Maybe we’ve damaged students because Cornell University is already very low ranked in terms of students’ sense of their ability to speak freely.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and two other organizations, about six or seven weeks ago, came out with a survey of schools and Cornell ranked near the bottom of the 50-plus schools they surveyed.
And in fact, two-thirds of the students at Cornell in the survey said they do not feel free to speak openly on campus. But there’s no self-reflection, or at least none that’s been shared with me by the people who created this atmosphere, who used me as the target of their two minutes of hate, who used me for their political purposes.
Not a single one has apologized, expressed to me any remorse, or has retracted their public statements against me.
Allen: Great. So, why stay? Why do you feel that you want to continue to fight to be a professor and that conservative holdout at Cornell?
Jacobson: That’s a good question. I think the answer is rather simple: I want to leave on my terms when I want to leave. And I have no plans to leave right now. I had no plans to leave right now and I don’t see why I should be forced to change my life because they are so intolerant and they are so malicious.
Why should I have to do that? Why don’t they leave? If they don’t like having me in the building, they can leave if they don’t like it, but I’m not going to leave. I’m not going to leave voluntarily. And if they do try to interfere in the renewal of my contract in a year and a half, I will take them to court over it.
Allen: Ah, well, what will you say to other students or professors who either have or will find themselves in a similar position?
Jacobson: It’s very tough. I was in a better position than 95% or 99% of the people who find themselves in my position.
One, I did have a measure of job security. It’s not tenure, but it’s job security. So they would have been very hard pressed to terminate me for statements I made off-campus. OK?
There’s no accusation that I made, anything anybody objects to in the course of my class. So they would have had a big legal problem if they did that.
So I had job protection. But I also had a platform. I have a website. May not be as big as The Daily Signal, but we get a lot of traffic. We have hundreds of thousands of readers every month, several hundred thousand unique readers every month.
And I also know a lot of people. … The website is almost as old as my job at Cornell. It was started in 2008. And [over] the course of 12 years, I’ve met a lot of people.
So when things were happening to me, people took notice and people wrote about it. And therefore, that publicity and that public disclosure I think afforded me a certain level of protection and a certain level of support.
I can’t tell you, so many letters and emails of support by Cornell Law School alumni, by Cornell alumni, by … influential alumni in the university and by the public. And so it’s very tough. It’s easy for me to say, “Just stand up to them.” But when you’re going through the moment, I can’t emphasize to you how stressful it is.
If you remember, there was something within Washington, D.C., where a woman was sitting at a table and there’s a very famous short video clip and photos of a group surrounding her, screaming at her while she’s sitting at the table at this restaurant, and pointing their fingers inches from her face. And that to me epitomizes what it’s like to go through this.
And the reason they were doing that is she refused to, essentially, pledge allegiance to the Black Lives Matter movement on the spot when she was sitting there at a restaurant.
When you have that, when you’re going through that, it’s really, in many ways, an out-of-body experience. And it is very hard to keep your head in those situations. Fortunately, I did.
I think the easiest thing for people to do is try to act like they do and lash out, but [at] all times I acted in a way that was both standing up for my rights, but also a very professional manner.
There are a lot of names I could have named and put on the website and put out on the internet of people who are involved here that I didn’t do because … I did not want the distraction of other people now becoming a target of the internet the way I was.
I wanted to focus everything on the issue of the intolerant atmosphere and the misdeeds of faculty and administrators toward me. And [I] didn’t want that deflected in any way.
Allen: Now, I know that the dean of the law school is leaving. Do you have any hope that there will be a shift at all at Cornell Law and you might see a little bit more just of an openness to free thought and freedom of speech?
Jacobson: I don’t know. I have to say the dean’s conduct, Eduardo Peñalver, was very surprising to me because I’ve always had extremely good relations with him. He has done things for me, which were, frankly, very kind in the past. And I was surprised. And he’s been a big proponent of free speech and open dialogue.
I think what happened is what happened to a lot of people in that moment in the weeks after George Floyd and the riots—they felt the need to placate the mob, to put it bluntly.
And he didn’t start this campaign against me. I don’t know whether he supported it or not. I have a feeling probably he wishes it didn’t happen. But it’s in those moments where leadership really comes through or doesn’t come through. And the leadership that should have been shown was the leadership recently shown at the University of Chicago.
A geophysics professor … experienced something very similar to what I went through more recently, about a month ago, where students organized against him and all because he criticized whether their diversity hiring approach was effective. OK?
He wasn’t criticizing diversity as a goal, “but maybe we’re not doing it the right way.” And they organized against him and they tried to get him fired. And the president of the University of Chicago didn’t do what the dean did to me. Did not issue a statement denouncing him, but saying, “We’re not going to fire him because he’s got tenure.”
They simply issued a statement without even naming him, reaffirming the right of faculty to speak their mind on various issues, including issues with regard to diversity. And if that had been done with regard to me, I think that would have set a proper tone.
So, a mistake was made. Yes, the dean is leaving. He got it. If you want to call it a promotion or whatever you want to call it, he’s going to become the president of Seattle University.
I don’t know who will replaced him, but I think the damage at the law school has been done. It will depend who they hire in place. I think that process has just started because this was something of a surprise announcement to most people.
So that process is just starting now. And it’s a process that I plan to raise with whoever prospective candidates are in my situation, not because it’s me, but because we need to know how they’re going to handle this the next time there are student petitions, the next time there’s an email campaign against the law professor, the next time there’s a boycott of courses, the next time the law school email list serves are used to attack a professor without giving the professor the ability to respond via those email list serves.
What is this person going to be? So what are they going to do? … This is something which I think the law school needs to address.
I don’t know whether the provost of the university—who ultimately will make the decision on who the dean is going to be, although the law school faculty will, of course, have a lot of input on that—whether he truly understands what has happened at the law school. I don’t know that he doesn’t or he does. I’ve not had that conversation with him.
But somebody needs to understand that there is a toxic atmosphere when it comes to political matters at Cornell Law School. And that you cannot take silence for meaning everything is OK.
One of the reasons there’s silence is that students have been bullied, and faculty have been bullied, and staff have been bullied into not speaking contrary to the popular narrative for fear of being treated the way I was treated.
Allen: Professor Jacobson, we just really thank you for standing up for the truth and for being willing to be one of those people that really stands in the fire of it all and says, “I’m not going to back down. This is the truth.”
And like you say, that’s not easy to do. That comes at great cost. But it’s so, so critical to … having that freedom of speech on a college campus and creating an atmosphere where students do feel comfortable to speak out and have differences of opinions.
And we certainly encourage all of our listeners to check out your website, legalinsurrection.com, to read your posts there and so many other wonderful authors that post on that site. And of course, to also follow your work on Twitter, @LegInsurrection. Professor Jacobson, thank you for your time.
Jacobson: Great. Thank you for having me.