University of Denver Sturm College of Law Facing Critiques Following Controversial Speech

Following a controversial speech at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, some Colorado Bar Associations are criticizing the administration’s response. 

The March 7 speaking event featured Ilya Shapiro, a legal scholar and former Georgetown law lecturer who resigned following an investigation into a series of tweets, and was titled “Silencing Minorities: Free Speech in Academia.” 

The event was hosted by the school’s Federalist Society, an organization of lawyers, law students and scholars “founded on the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom,” according to the University of Denver Sturm College of Law student organizations page. The page states that the group is made up of mainly conservatives and libertarians “interested in the current state of the legal order but welcomes members of any political affiliation.”

Prior to the event, the National Lawyers Guild at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law posted on Twitter encouraging the signature of an open letter demanding the school cancel the event.  

At the event, protest signs were banned, dissent was contained to “free speech zones” and the administration threatened disruptors would jeopardize their future bar licensure, according to a public letter from the Black Law Students’ Association at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

The public letter from BLSA also said security was bolstered for the event and that students who supported Shaprio made racially charged comments. The BLSA took issue with the content of Shapiro’s talk, which they said advocated for the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in higher education institutions.

The BLSA public letter states: “Most strikingly, Dean Bruce Smith — despite issuing a statement that he personally would be attending a counter-event organized by diverse faculty to provide ‘a place for solidarity, support and affirmation of our core principles of inclusion, respect, and civility’ — chose to attend the Shapiro event from start to finish. Dean Smith even introduced Shapiro while simultaneously threatening diverse students that he would report them to the bar if they protested Shapiro’s speech.” 

Shapiro, in a statement following the event, also noted protesters were “shunted” to free speech zones and that signs weren’t allowed in the event. 

Both the Colorado LGBT Bar Association and the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association published letters addressed to the University of Denver Chancellor Jeremy Haefner and Bruce Smith, the dean of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, sharing concerns about the conduct related to the event. 

The CHBA’s letter, released March 17, raised concerns over providing a forum for elevating speech like Shapiro’s, which the letter says “denigrates people of color and other persons who have historically been underrepresented.” It also states the students’ rights to dissent was “severely curtailed.” 

The CHBA pointed to the law school’s policies, and stated the actions of the administration were contrary to its policies. 

The Colorado LGBT Bar Association’s letter, released March 22, condemned the school and Smith’s actions, and said the school “abjectly failed to appropriately and neutrally administer the event.” The letter states the association confirmed Smith prohibited signs and limited “dissenting, but not endorsing.” 

The letter states that Smith “abused his position of authority and violated ethical standards when he threatened students with sanctions regarding their upcoming Bar Exam applications.” 

The letter states: “Threats of the kind made by Dean Bruce Smith should be officially proscribed by DU Law immediately. If anyone’s conduct was unworthy of licensure and counter to the ethical standards our legal community is upheld to, it was Dean Bruce Smith’s.” 

The Colorado LGBT Bar Association’s letter demanded that the law school and Smith apologize for their conduct, “immediately commence” efforts to prevent events like this from happening again and commit to meeting with the Affinity and Diversity Bar Associations to discuss the matter. The CHBA’s letter also requested a meeting with the administration. 

As of publication, the University of Denver Sturm College of Law hasn’t released a public statement concerning this matter. 

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