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How Yale Law School pressured a law student to apologize for a Constitution Day ‘trap house’ invitation

Yale School of Law is facing blowback after senior officials attempted to coerce a student into apologizing over an invitation he sent inviting fellow law students to a "trap house" for Constitution Day.

Free speech is in jeopardy yet again at Yale University, where law school administrators met with a student multiple times to pressure him to apologize for language he used in an email that offended some of his classmates. The incident illustrates how university officials can seek to intimidate students into silence and conformity through obscure procedures and veiled threats of punishment.

‘Trap house’ email traps student in administrative merry-go-round

Put yourself in the shoes of a law student. You’re called to multiple meetings with administrators over an email you wrote that offended other students. The language in the email is clearly protected by the school’s guarantees of free speech. You nevertheless discover that multiple students have filed discrimination and harassment complaints. You’re repeatedly told you should issue a public apology if you want the matter to “go away.” You’re told the issue might “linger” even after you graduate and that the “legal community is a small one.” Administrators even go so far as to write an apology for you. They repeatedly reference their administrative roles — the need to produce a final “report” to the university’s administration, the possibility of a “formal recommendation” for bias training. At no time are you assured your speech is protected. And right before you leave one of these meetings, the administrators imply that the matter could somehow wind up before the state bar. A bar that requires you to pass a searching review of your character and fitness. 

And when you ask the administrators to clarify, you’re ignored for two weeks.

As reported in The Washington Free Beacon yesterday, an anonymous second-year student at Yale Law School, who is a member of both the Native American Law Student Association and the Federalist Society, sent an email on Sept. 15 inviting NALSA members to a social event. The student, Trent Colbert, has been in contact with FIRE and agreed to be named in this piece.

“This Friday at 7:30, we will be christening our very own (soon to be) world-renowned NALSA Trap House . . . by throwing a Constitution Day Bash in collaboration with FedSoc,” Colbert wrote in the email. He added, “Planned attractions include Popeye’s chicken, basic-bitch-American-themed snacks (like apple pie, etc.),” and a cocktail station. 

The email quickly circulated in an online forum for Yale Law’s second-year class, where several members took issue with use of the term “trap house,” in particular. A member of the Black Law Students Association called it “a reference to the racist impact of both drugs and the war on drugs as well as urban decay and redlining,” and argued that it was an “inherently anti-Black sentiment.” 

The law school’s administration immediately swooped in. 

The next morning, two administrators from the Office of Student Affairs summoned Colbert to a meeting — the first of several. 

While Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Yaseen Eldik told Colbert early on that the process was not “adjudicatory or punitive,” it would soon turn coercive and leave Colbert thinking trouble might be in the cards if he didn’t cooperate.

At the initial Sept. 16 meeting, Colbert explained the idea of the Constitution Day event was to “do like, classic American kind of patriotic goodies like America’s apple pie, get some fried chicken.” In Colbert’s formulation, the term “trap house” meant “a bachelor pad” or “a not-very-fancy social space where people drink.” He added, “The vibe I imagined was like high school kids drinking in their mom’s basement. But I just thought it was a funny name. It makes it sound social.” 

The term “trap house” originated as slang for a house in a poor community where illegal drugs are sold. It also lends its name to a subgenre of hip hop music that became widely popular in the early 2000s. But the top entry for “traphouse” in Urban Dictionary reads: 

Originally used to describe a crack house in a shady neighborhood, the word has since been abused by high school students who like to pretend they’re cool by drinking their mom’s beer together and saying they’re part of a “traphouse.” 

While Urban Dictionary may not be a source you’d cite in a Ph.D. dissertation, its definition almost perfectly matches Colbert’s explanation of what he meant by “trap house.” 

Universities across the country continue to treat students like children who cannot resolve their own disagreements.

But how Colbert intended the phrase is, at least for administrators at an institution that pledges to protect freedom of expression, beside the point. Even if Colbert was being deliberately provocative, his speech is still protected by Yale’s explicit promises of free expression. But those policies were no obstacle to Yale administrators.

Noting that several students had filed discrimination and harassment complaints about the email, Eldik told Colbert the word “trap” can be “triggering” because of its historical association with drug use in poor black communities and the history of white college students mocking black culture. According to Eldik, the involvement of a mainstream conservative organization only exacerbated the problem: “The email’s association with FedSoc was very triggering for students that already feel like FedSoc belongs to political affiliations that are oppressive to certain communities.”

Throughout that first meeting, Eldik and Associate Dean of Student Affairs Ellen Cosgrove pressured Colbert to “de-escalate” the situation by writing a public apology to his offended classmates. When Colbert said he instead preferred to speak individually with anyone who was upset by his email, Eldik responded that he didn’t “want to make our office look like an ineffective source of resolution.” He said an apology was “more likely to have this go away,” and he was worried about the incident “lingering” over Colbert’s reputation “not just here, but when you leave,” adding that “the legal community is a small one.” 

Colbert asked for more time to think about it, to which Cosgrove replied, “I want you to take time, so that you can be comfortable with the decision you reach,” but “with a situation like this, people start to escalate” and “defusing it is always the most effective way to go, which means doing something sooner rather than later.”

In a follow-up conversation that evening, the administrators again encouraged Colbert to apologize and to meet with BLSA members. Cosgrove told Colbert it was “your call” and they were not there to “strong-arm” him, but said he shouldn’t expect the matter to “just die” if he didn’t do anything. 

Eldik said he had to do a “write-up” about the incident to submit to the university, and it would “make sense” to have at least one more conversation before that. The exact nature of this “write-up” remained a mystery to Colbert. If the process to this point merely involved persuasion and resembled a voluntary mediation (and even that is highly questionable), Eldik’s unclear mention of a “write-up” began to move it into more coercive territory by suggesting it was a formal administrative matter.

Eldik also sent Colbert a draft apology addressed to BLSA leaders “as a way to help give you a start.” 

When Colbert hadn’t apologized by the evening of Sept. 16, Cosgrove sent an email to Yale Law’s entire second-year class to “condemn . . . in the strongest possible terms” the assertedly “pejorative and racist language” in Colbert’s Constitution Day invitation. Colbert texted Eldik that he was not happy with Cosgrove’s email, and they arranged to meet again the next day.

A university like Yale must allow students and faculty members to express themselves freely and criticize each other’s speech without administrative interference and prepackaged apologies.

At that Sept. 17 meeting, Colbert said he attended a gathering where he had talked to some BLSA members and other students about the incident and “things went well.” Nevertheless, Eldik continued to push Colbert to issue a written apology and to meet with other students. “I’m not trying to make you write something you don’t want to write,” Eldik said, before telling Colbert how to write the apology: “I think it’s important to say in the first few lines, as someone who’s written dozens of these, is you just want to . . . apologize for any upset, um, frustration that this has caused.” Eldik hoped Colbert would “get at least a two-sentence apology out” to the offended students before the administrators circled back with them. 

Eldik also noted that he hadn’t made a “formal recommendation” for Colbert to undergo bias training because Colbert had done so much “active listening to some of the cultural contexts” and had “been so receptive to a lot of what” Eldik had said. Here again, Eldik invoked his authority to impose consequences on Colbert for not cooperating. 

At the end of the meeting, Eldik told Colbert, “I don’t have to do my job like this. I want to do my job like this.”

He then left Colbert with these ominous words: “You’re a law student, and there’s a bar you have to take you know and it’s just, you know, we think it’s important to really give you a 360 view.”

As The Free Beacon noted, the state bar character and fitness reviews often involve close scrutiny of an applicant’s record and background: “The New York State Bar, for example, asks law schools to describe any ‘discreditable information’ that might bear upon an ‘applicant’s character,’ even if it did not result in formal discipline.” Law school graduates must pass character and fitness review to become licensed attorneys. 

This is why even informal investigations can have continuing consequences for students, even when they’re exonerated. Administrators who depart from their institution’s promises of free expression risk not only damage to their own institution’s reputation, but to students’ futures — even if they don’t mete out punishment.

Colbert ultimately declined to send the administrators’ pre-written apology. Instead, he posted on the forum for second-year law students, clarifying that the theme of the event was Constitution Day, not “trap house,” and he offered to talk individually to anyone who had been “hurt by anything I’ve said.” That post did not satisfy his critics.

Colbert was worried about things said at the last meeting. In a follow-up conversation with Eldik on Sept. 18, he asked for clarification about Eldik’s reference to the bar. Eldik said he didn’t “foresee” that the matter would “connect with the bar just yet.” When pressed on what he meant by “just yet,” Eldik responded that he didn’t see how the situation would “come from us to the bar.”

Colbert also asked about the administrators’ “write-up.” Eldik replied that the write-up doesn’t mean that the matter is “over.” He and Cosgrove hadn’t finished discussing the situation with other students. Eldik told Colbert that even after he puts “something in writing” to the university, it wouldn’t make the situation “go away.” Eldik also could not confirm whether Colbert’s name would be in that report.

After not hearing anything for the next several days, Colbert emailed Eldik and Cosgrove on Sept. 22 for updates on the write-up. Cosgrove replied they would not “write anything up until the matter is resolved and the matter is not resolved.” Cosgrove added that BLSA leaders had asked her and Eldik to arrange a meeting with him, but Colbert reminded Cosgrove that he had already declined to attend a meeting mediated by Eldik and Cosgrove, rather than meet with students individually.

On Sept. 29, still uncertain about where things stood, Colbert emailed Cosgrove and Eldik various questions, including whether he would need to attend additional meetings, whether there was any possibility he would face discipline, and whether Yale might report the incident to the bar. 

That email went unanswered for almost two weeks. 

After Colbert followed up with the administrators this week, they responded and again asked to meet in person. At a meeting on Tuesday, Cosgrove and Eldik confirmed they would not discipline Colbert and had no authority to do so. Cosgrove acknowledged how the mention of a “write-up” might have led Colbert to believe there would be some kind of formal documentation that could affect him in the future. The “write-up” would not include names and will only be created to fulfill the office’s reporting obligations, she said. Cosgrove further confirmed that no Yale official would contact the bar about the incident. Eldik said he completely understood how the meetings might have been confusing to Colbert.

Yale minimizes student’s ordeal and ignores chilling effect

After Colbert’s saga became public yesterday and spread rapidly on social media, Yale Law issued a statement affirming its “strong free speech protections” and asserting that no “disciplinary investigation” had taken place. 

Yale’s statement acknowledges the obvious fact that Colbert’s speech is protected, and its reaffirmation of its commitment to freedom of expression is welcome — but not credible. Yale’s leaders again give public lip service to their dedication to expressive freedom, while its lawyers tell a court that Yale shouldn’t be held to these commitments as policy, and its administrators betray those commitments in practice.

Yale’s statement denies something that has never been claimed (that a “disciplinary investigation” has taken place) to minimize the misconduct of its administrators. Whatever you want to call the administrators’ illiberal pressure tactics, they have no place at an institution like Yale that claims to place on every university official “a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed.”

It was an abuse of power and a clear departure from what Yale boasts are its core values.

Even if Eldik and Cosgrove privately intended their serial meetings to be part of a voluntary and informal conflict resolution procedure, their conduct was more than just an attempt to persuade or convince. It was an abuse of power and a clear departure from what Yale boasts are its core values. The university’s excuse that no formal investigation occurred is woefully inadequate. 

Perhaps Eldik and Cosgrove meant to refer only to destructive actions others might take if Colbert refused to prostrate himself and utter a forced apology. But to the ears of any reasonable student, some of these remarks were at best negligent, and at worst veiled threats. Eldik and Cosgrove were, at best, exceedingly vague about the process the student was undergoing and what consequences he might face if he failed to cooperate. Their fleeting assurances that the process wasn’t adjudicatory or punitive became less and less reliable. Listen, you can do whatever you want. And by the way, that’s a nice legal career you’ve got ahead of you. Would be a real shame if something happened to it.

The fact that Colbert’s speech was protected seemed to be of no concern to Eldik and Cosgrove or of much less concern than placating Colbert’s angry classmates and avoiding bad publicity.

Yale can keep touting its commitment to free expression, but it can’t expect everyone to reject the evidence of their eyes and ears.

If administrators want to invite a student to participate in an informal and optional conflict resolution process, the burden is on administrators to make crystal clear to the student that participation is wholly voluntary and that the student will in no circumstances face any punitive consequences for declining the invitation. It certainly shouldn’t take multiple meetings for a student to get an unambiguous answer on that. If a student has to ask the administrators to clarify, they’ve already overstepped their bounds and have disregarded the potential chilling and coercive effects of their actions. 

This isn’t the first time a university has put intense pressure on a student or faculty member to recant, apologize, or even beg for forgiveness the moment speech leads to controversy and heated conflict. Universities across the country continue to treat students like children who cannot resolve their own disagreements. As FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff has written, teaching young people that interpersonal conflicts must be resolved by appeals to power “encourages habits of moral dependency”:

Free societies must include some element of individual responsibility and encouragement to handle conflicts on one’s own. It is hard to overstate the dangers of training a generation of people in a democratic society to always look to authority figures to resolve life’s difficulties.

A university like Yale must allow students and faculty members to express themselves freely and criticize each other’s speech without administrative interference and prepackaged apologies. 

Whither Yale’s free speech promises?

Unfortunately, Yale’s recent history does not inspire confidence in its commitment to free expression. Just last week, FIRE’s Jordan Howell extensively documented Yale’s wavering dedication to open expression, as it tells a court to disregard its own clear and longstanding promises of academic freedom and free expression. 

Yale can keep touting its commitment to free expression, but it can’t expect everyone to reject the evidence of their eyes and ears. Abstract paeans to free expression are nice, but they don’t mean much if a university is willing to discard its principles when controversies arise. Speech protection isn’t something to indulge when convenient, and freedom of speech should be a settled issue at an institution of higher education that has existed for over 300 years. 

FIRE, a free speech nonprofit, defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If your rights are in jeopardy, get in touch with us:

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