Law school talks lead to protests: Waggoner, McGlothlin trigger unrest among student groups

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Waggoner is the senior vice president of legal services and senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal advocacy and training group which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group. NIA KITCHIN / THE FLAT HAT

Monday, Nov. 12, Kristen Waggoner entered a packed classroom at the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary to find desks draped with gay pride flags and students handing out ribbons in support of LGBTQ individuals. Waggoner was brought to the College as part of the Dunn Speaker Series to present her lecture entitled, “The Free Speech Clause and the Defense of Religious Liberty.”

Waggoner is the senior vice president of legal services and senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal advocacy and training group. The organization aims to fund cases, train attorneys and advocate in court for what it perceives to be key issues of religious freedom, including marriage, family and the sanctity of life. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the ADF as a hate group because they use constitutional guarantees of religion and free speech as a basis to deny rights to LGBTQ people.

The ADF’s presence on campus was met first with a statement from the William and Mary Equality Alliance, with signatures from the Law School’s chapter of the American Constitution Society, Lawyers Helping Lawyers and the Law School’s chapter of If/When/How, Lawyering for Reproductive Justice. Members of these organizations then staged a protest during the event itself, motivated by their belief that Waggoner’s espoused values are damaging to students.

“We believe there is a line between speakers whose ideas challenge our own opinions and preconceptions, and those whose ideas directly harm students,” the Equality Alliance said in a written statement.

“We believe there is a line between speakers whose ideas challenge our own opinions and preconceptions, and those whose ideas directly harm students,” the Equality Alliance said in a written statement.

Law students from these organizations raised concerns about Waggoner’s lecture in the wake of controversy surrounding statements made by Jim McGlothlin, a significant donor to the Law School, during the McGlothlin Leadership Forum Wednesday, Oct. 31.

Mathew Snarr J.D. ’20 said that he heard from peers that McGlothlin made remarks disparaging children from single-family homes, victims of police shootings and activist and former NFL-athlete Colin Kaepernick. According to what Snarr heard online and from friends, faculty members instructed a table of students to clap following McGlothlin’s remarks. Snarr attended a second session led by McGlothlin not of his own volition but because he was specifically instructed by Law School Dean and jurisprudence professor Davison Douglas that he must attend the event, or find someone to attend in his place, in order to create a large turnout.

“We were told we had to be welcoming because Mr. McGlothlin was a big donor to the law school and, … if we couldn’t be there, we had to find someone to fill our seat because every seat needs to be filled,” Snarr said.

After the McGlothlin Leadership Forum, the Law School held two town halls to gather student feedback. According to College spokesperson Brian Whitson, McGlothlin then returned to campus to apologize directly to the students who were asked to stand.

“I have apologized verbally to our students and sent a written apology,” Douglas said in a written statement. “We were wrong in creating an environment in which our students felt they were unable to leave, unable to respond, and asked to stand for something with which they disagreed. … We recognize that the promotion of diversity in our community requires opportunities for dialogue between people of different backgrounds and viewpoints; recently we failed to provide those opportunities. The Law School has made mistakes, and with your help, we will make a significant course correction that will improve our community for all of its members.”

When reports of this behavior surfaced online, including on the Gadfly and “Discourse” Facebook pages, they created public outcry and contributed to the protest against the Law School’s decision to host Waggoner. After distributing ribbons, students hung a large gay pride flag over the desks closest to Waggoner as well as in the back of the room. They did not interrupt her planned lecture but sat up front and used the question-and-answer portion of the event to express their discontent with Waggoner and the ADF’s views and question her reasoning. 

“Unlike how LGBTQ+ voices have historically been silenced, we do not wish to ‘shout down’ or silence Ms. Waggoner,” the Equality Alliance said in a written statement. “We encourage our fellow students who feel comfortable doing so to attend Ms. Waggoner’s lecture, to respectfully listen to opposing views, and to challenge her in return.”

President of the Equality Alliance Colin Neal J.D. ’20 said that it was important to him that they protest civilly but also in a way that would call attention to these issues of equality.

“We didn’t send out questions or things for people to say,” Neal said. “… We wanted to make sure that we were civil and that we respected that everyone should have free speech, but not everyone has always had equal access to the levers of power that advocates of free speech like to act [as though] have always been equal,” Neal said.

During her lecture, Waggoner discussed her Supreme Court fight and narrow win in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case. In the case, Waggoner argued that it is within the rights of a Christian baker to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. The basis of Waggoner’s argument lay in her assertion that no one should be forced to violate their Christian principles because this could set a dangerous precedent. Waggoner used a hypothetical example of a democratic speechwriter being forced to write for United States President Donald Trump, reasoning that this scenario would be permissible under the same law that would force bakers like her client to bake for gay couples. Waggoner called proponents of exceptions to conscientious objection for protected classes inconsistent.

“Speech and religious freedom help us with progress and contribute to intellectual freedom and pluralism,” Waggoner said.

Waggoner also emphasized the importance of historical context in the unique institution of heterosexual marriage. In order to differentiate interracial marriage from gay marriage, she argued that the former is legal while the latter should not be because marriage has always been between a man and a woman, while marriages between different races have existed in the past.

“Context matters in the free speech context — the message changes when the context changes,” Waggoner said.

During the question-and-answer portion of the event, students and professors debated vociferously with Waggoner over these views. Students questioned her insistence on the systemic nature of heterosexual marriage and refuted her arguments with examples from the Bible about Abraham engaging in polygamy. In response, Waggoner said that Abraham had “screwed up.”

When fielding questions about her organization’s designation as a hate group, Waggoner said that she did not agree with this designation. She said that it’s easy to “slap names on things” but that the ADF considers each case individually. Following a heated exchange with a professor about the cynicism expressed in her views, Waggoner expressed to the crowd her hope that this disagreement will lead to increased engagement in the future. 

“If you want to go out and speak on our group and how much you like it and disagree with it, then go ahead,” Waggoner said. “We believe you should have the right to do that. One of the greatest contributions to our nation is ability to disagree civilly.”

Christian Law Society President Nick Thompson J.D. ’20 drew the open forum to a close after the allotted hour had passed. In regard to the effectiveness of the event, Thompson said that he considered it to be a constructive conversation, and while he disagreed with the categorization of the ADF as a hate group and some of the comments made at the event, he still appreciated the open discourse.

“Discourse is a good thing,” Thompson said. “…A good healthy amount of conflict leads to the highest production.”

However, students involved in the protest disagreed with Thompson’s assessment of the productiveness of the event. President of Lawyers Helping Lawyers Ryan Walkenhorst J.D. ’19 expressed her concern that the on-campus presence of a group attempting to deny rights to LGBTQ people was threatening and disturbing to students. She said that it appeared hypocritical that the Law School claims to represent the citizen lawyer and create a diverse community yet still invited Waggoner to speak.

“I think there is a difference between diverse viewpoints and organizations and speech that actively harm their students and their students’ mental health,” Walkenhorst said. “There are documented, over and over and over again, consequences of people that are affected by these speeches.”

Neal said that he wanted to protest the event in order to make it very clear that Waggoner’s values are not shared by everyone at the Law School. Emphasizing the importance of standing up to hateful rhetoric, Colin said that standing up for marginalized groups on campus is critical.

“We thought that we needed to at least make our voices heard and show that there is support within our law school for queer people,” Neal said.

“We thought that we needed to at least make our voices heard and show that there is support within our law school for queer people,” Neal said.

Despite the contention apparent during Waggoner’s lecture, afterward she said that this impassioned debate was essential in order to gain a shared understanding. 

“I think it’s important to hear views that you disagree with and to have civil dialogue about them,” Waggoner said. “I welcome hostile questions; I thought it was very respectful. And I think it’s important to emphasize that in other settings, when you’re a lawyer and not a law student, we have debates all the time with groups that oppose us, [like] the ACLU and other groups, and that helps civil dialogue. It helps us to understand each other. It may help us to rethink our proven positions, and it can help with social progress.”

Despite Waggoner’s dedication to dynamic debate for the sake of opening minds, her response to student questions about the validity of her argument acknowledges a certain amount of adherence to her own proven positions.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include more information regarding the Law School’s response to the McGlothlin Leadership Forum.