Yesterday, Saint Louis University School of Law hosted the student-run Public Law Review symposium, titled The Thin Blue Line: Policing Post-Ferguson. Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor at the center of the storm of controversy surrounding the Darren Wilson/Michael Brown grand jury process, was the opening speaker. Earlier this week, our law school faculty meeting was the scene of some intense conversation about the up-coming event. Some faculty worried that providing McCulloch a forum would be harmful to our students of color. Other faculty expressed concern that students who supported McCulloch’s visit felt denigrated. All faculty members were united in a single goal: to create a space where our students felt free to express divergent views in a respectful and supportive way.
Along with more than 200 guests and speakers, I was in the room for McCulloch’s talk. He spoke about the grand jury process. It was a page out of my Criminal Procedure class. Several minutes into his talk, a young woman in a judge’s robe stood up and interrupted him. She, along with several other protesters in the audience conducted a mock trial in which McCulloch was the defendant. McCulloch asked that they stop and allow him to continue talking, as did Dean Wolff. SLU President Pestello, who was in attendance, similarly implored them to permit McCulloch to continue. Saint Louis police and SLU security personnel were in attendance, and many of us watched them for any sign that they would move forward to intervene. None of them moved. The mock trial continued, and the protesters “convicted” McCulloch. The dissenting voices ceased, and McCulloch continued his talk. Several more minutes passed, and a second round of protesters rose, holding signs with tombstones on them. Their singing drowned out McCulloch’s voice, and they were stalwart in the face of more pleas from President Pestello. When it became clear that they would not stop, several security and law enforcement personnel moved in and escorted them out. One more round of protesters interrupted and they were escorted out in a similar fashion.
I will remember the event for a long time to come, not for the content of McCulloch’s talk, nor for what the protesters said. Notable to me was McCulloch’s willing to come and open himself up to protest and searching questions from audience members. As an elected official in charge of critical decisions that affect whole communities in fundamental ways, he has that responsibility. Still, he came to a place where he had very little control over the identity of the audience members and the response to protesters. I will also remember the protesters, who insisted on giving voice to a perspective they clearly felt had been silenced for too long. Their approach was disruptive, and I dare say unpleasant for many in the audience. They could have tried to convey their views during the Q&A, but they clearly felt that this forum did not allow them sufficient space to challenge McCulloch. They wanted to be heard, and they were.
In the end, what I believe I will remember as being most significant is the pains that were taken to move carefully and to be thoughtful about the response to the protesters’ disruptions. I don’t know who made the call, first to allow the protests to go on, and then to quell them in order to permit McCulloch to continue. Not everyone will agree that the right balance was struck. (Several members of the audience shouted out some version of “Take them out!” at various points prior to the removal of the protesters.) To my mind, that is beside the point. More important, through action and inaction, the administration of our law school conveyed acceptance of differing viewpoints, and tolerance of various forms of expression. There was neither immediate action to silence the protesters nor acceptance of their agenda to disrupt McCulloch’s talk.
In post from November 29, entitled “Teaching Ferguson,” I wrote about my hope for a lesson I try to convey to my students: listen to all viewpoints, keep an open mind, challenge your own views, and subject them to constant and meaningful testing. Yesterday’s event was a delicate balancing act, but it seems to me that in the face of challenging circumstances, SLU Law managed to operate according to these principles.