This story of cancel culture would be laughable were it not for the fact that it is so serious. It involves an attempt by four Harvard Law School student groups to interfere in the employment of, and damage the career of, Professor Adrian Vermeule.
This reflects an ongoing attempt by leftwing students to purge academia of viewpoints that do not perfectly align with the social justice and Black Lives Matter orthodoxy. Much like during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, students lead the way in belittling and trying to damage dissident professors, with public shaming and institutional ritualized denunciations preferred methods of intimidation.
We’ve covered so many of these cases just in the last few months, it’s almost too much to count, but includes: Cornell Chemistry Prof. David Collum, UCF Psychology Prof. Charles Negy, U. Chicago Geophysicist Prof. Dorian Abbot, McGill Univ. Anthropology Emeritus Prof. Philip Carl Salzman, U. Miami Law Prof. Dan Ravicher, USC Business Prof. Greg Patton, Princeton Classics Prof. Joshua Katz, several Skidmore College professors, University of North Texas Music Theory Prof. Gregory Jackson, Michigan State Physics Prof. Stephen Hsu, and of course, me.
I don’t know Prof. Vermeule other than by reputation and stature, and his Twitter account. Here is a short bio from Prof. Vermeule’s Harvard Law faculty page:
Adrian Vermeule is the Ralph S. Tyler, Jr. Professor of Constitutional Law. Before coming to the Law School, he was the Bernard D. Meltzer Professor of Law at the University of Chicago. The author or co-author of nine books, most recently Law’s Abnegation: From Law’s Empire to the Administrative State (2016), The Constitution of Risk (2014) and The System of the Constitution (2012). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012. His research focuses on administrative law, the administrative state, the design of institutions, and constitutional theory. Having grown up in Cambridge and attended Harvard College ’90 and Harvard Law School ’93, Vermeule lives in Cambridge still.
His list of publications is extensive, and reflects an intellectual breadth touching on esoteric areas of the law and major public policy issues. His personal website includes video and links to numerous lectures and appearances. He has written frequently in the non-legal popular press, including a recent article in The Atlantic that generated a lot of debate, Beyond Originalism. (see responses here and here, for example).
It’s not easy to pigeonhole Prof. Vermeule in the current political context. I’d classify him, based on what I’ve read, as a political and intellectual iconoclast. A lot of people would probably call him a conservative, though I don’t know if that’s what he’d call himself.
Agree with him or disagree with him, Prof. Vermeule is exactly the type of professor you would expect to be on the faculty of the nation’s top law school (I’m somewhat prejudiced here).
I follow Prof. Vermeule on Twitter, where his account is entertaining, irreverent, and sarcastic.
That account generated a ridiculous controversy in February 2020, when he tweeted about how attendees at a conference on principled conservatism would be “The very first group for the camps.” Oh, the faux outrage about how he supposedly was demeaning the Holocaust (he wasn’t, that’s a bad faith assertion). A UT-Austin law professor also took offense to Prof. Vermeule’s tweet that atheists “can’t be trusted to keep an oath” which supposedly constituted bigotry against Atheists (seriously). You get the picture – Vermeule’s Twitter account reactions shows that lefties can’t take a joke or being poked, and make up ridiculous outrageous outrage !!!
His Twitter account, by the way, is positively tame compared to that of Harvard Law Professor Emeritus Laurence Tribe.
That faux outrage, inability to detect sarcasm, and ability to turn standard Twitter fare into outrage !!! has led to a much more serious attack on Prof. Vermeule in a letter sent to HLS admnistrators demanding punitive actions (more below), as reported by Chrissy Clark at The Washington Free Beacon:
It was authored by People’s Parity Project, a group of law students and new attorneys who aim to “unf*ck the law” by ending “how the legal profession—and the law itself—enables harassment, discrimination, and other injustices.” …Vermeule—who has written that much of First Amendment jurisprudence should “fall under the ax”—told the Washington Free Beacon that he is”confident that Harvard will uphold its longstanding moral and contractual commitments … to protecting academic freedom and free speech.”
I obtained a copy of the letter. It is issued on behalf of four student groups:
The Harvard Parity Project
Alliance for Reproductive Justice
Progressive Jewish Alliance
I’ve debated whether to post the entire letter, but since it doesn’t appear to be in the public domain yet, I’ll only excerpt it. It contains many absurd, disingenuous, contrived, false, and abusive accusations based on out-of-context reading of tweets and other writings, and an inability to detect sarcasm. This is a common tactic when non-liberal professors are targeted for cancelation, stuff the complaint letter and petitions with so much nonsense that it creates a swarm of accusations that, like other swarms, makes it difficult to respond.
The letter is three-pages single spaced, with an additional 42 pages of screenshots of tweets and excerpts from articles. It’s clear from the letter that someone or some group spent a lot of time trying to build a case against Prof. Vermeule, scouring his record to present a twisted version of reality. Prof. Vermeule was targeted, this didn’t just happen.
The letter starts with the now-standard (and false) claim that words are violence (emphasis in original):
We are writing to you because HLS Professor Adrian Vermeule has, for over a year, been making highly offensive, discriminatory, and violent statements in online posts and in the press. It has also come to our attention that Prof. Vermeule has recently been using his personal twitter account to spread election disinformation. While we understand that Prof. Vermeule speaks only for himself, and not for the law school, the administration should not ignore the harm his words cause. You will find examples of the statements at issue in the Appendix. We urge you to take action to address this issue with Prof. Vermeule directly and to mitigate the harm his interaction with students may cause through the measures detailed below.
Here’s the explanation for Prof. Vermeule supposedly spreading election disinformation, it’s laughable these people can’t detect sarcasm and obviously have a dull sense of humor (emphasis mine):
First, Prof. Vermeule’s tweets are exacerbating the harmful spread of election disinformation. While every election will highlight substantial disagreements on a wide range of issues, Prof. Vermeule’s statements cross the line of ordinary political disagreement and veer into baseless conspiracy theories which undermine the electoral process itself.For example, as unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud spread following the election, Prof. Vermeule tweeted “ Lol the election isn’t over until Team Joe fixes up your ballot for you ” and “Kids, not sure if you knew this, but missing ballots have magical properties that make them visible only between midnight and 6am .” His post-election retweets included statements such as “ Even a Saddam Hussein had to make some pretence of not getting 100% of the vote in an Iraqi election … ‘Baghdad on the Delaware .’” And these examples only scratch the surface. Prof. Vermeule may try to play off his statements as a joke, but they amount to a pattern of promoting demonstrably false conspiracy theories. His statements are harmful to democracy and unbelievably divisive. To work at Harvard Law School is to be granted a platform and a level of legitimacy. Prof. Vermeule is abusing this platform in order to undermine democracy and delegitimize the results of the election.
Are you kidding me? This stuff is funny, and even if it’s not funny to some Harvard Law students.
They then devote half a page to the “camps” tweet discussed above, and another tweet in which Prof. Vermeule clearly joked about forced labor in facist Spain being “ The Good Society ?” (note the emojii). From this they conclude (emphasis added):
This language is not normal and it cannot be normalized. It is a language that promotes violence on the basis of political opinion and it cannot be tolerated. Prof. Vermeule demonstrates a disdain for opposing viewpoints, such as those of communists and socialists, who are equal members of our society.
Oh, the poor suffering “communists and socialists” should not be mocked, apparently. They also accuse Prof. Vermeule of calling for violence by tweeting in response to protesters in Portland (who rolled out a guillatine, something not mentioned in the letter)(footnote in original letter):
So they literally think that Prof. Vermeule called for use of a cannon from Napoleonic times in Portland? They didn’t get the context of grapeshot and a guillatine?
“ Time for a whiff of grapeshot ,” 11 Grapeshot was a form of ammunition from a cannon in Napoleonic times, and it is a quote from Napoleon describing how he dispersed crowds with cannon fire. He fired grapeshot into the crowd, and so a “ whiff of grapeshot ” refers to that incident.
There more of this type of thing in the letter in which tweets and retweets are taken out of context and exaggerated. Here is just a sample from the Appendix, with the original category headings:
More dangerously, they try to tag Prof. Vermeule with violating HLS’s anti-discrimination policies in his writing by taking positions on a variety of social and cultural issues that are not in the mainstream among students at HLS. But not once do they claim that Prof. Vermeule ever has discriminated against a student. Instead, they simply cannot stand having someone on the faculty who disagrees with them, and claim having such a faculty member on staff puts them at risk and makes them unsafe:
Even if Prof. Vermeule does not bring these opinions into class, the public nature of these statements mean that they will inevitably impact students’ ability to learn or trust what he says. Students are less likely to feel comfortable going to office hours, discussing class topics, or engaging with Prof. Vermeule at all, as they justifiably believe he has disdain for them. This is not a question of academic freedom, nor is it one of censorship. This is an issue of student safety, of discrimination, and of student dignity. We must be able to exist in a classroom without feeling trauma if we are to effectively learn, and Harvard must ensure that its professors are not discriminating against their own students on the basis of religion, race, political opinion, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
While they don’t call for Prof. Vermeule to be fired, they want him publicly shamed by the law school and humiliated by stripping him of key teaching assignments, including banning him from teaching first year law students:
We ask that Harvard Law School take the following steps:1. Release a statement condemning Prof. Vermeule’s spread of inaccurate conspiracy theories about the election, violent rhetoric, and intolerant statements.2. Conduct an investigation into whether Prof. Vermeule is spreading misinformation or discriminatory content in his classes or discriminating against students on the basis of characteristics protected by HLS’s Policy Against Discrimination, and take appropriate action until the investigation is completed.3. Create at least two sections of Administrative Law per semester, so that no student is forced to take a class with Prof. Vermeule.4. Commit that going forward, Prof. Vermeule will not teach 1Ls.
I reached out to the Harvard Law School Dean John Manning, but received no response. I also reached out to the student groups, and also received no response. Prof. Vermeule declined to comment beyond what he told the Free Beacon.
We are at a very dangerous place. The push to homogenize the intellectual life at our top universities is being driven by intolerant students and student groups who are so self-absorbed they think nothing of destroying careers to satisfy their own political and personal agenda.
Dean Manning should issue an unequivocal defense of Prof. Vermeule’s academic freedom, without watering it down with the personal pejoratives so many other Deans and Presidents use when addressing attacks on faculty academic freedom.