As she took to the podium at Fitts Auditorium in Penn Law School on Oct. 11, Penn Law professor Amy Wax silenced a rowdy auditorium of more than 300 law students, faculty and staff in a talk sponsored by the Penn Federalist Society.
“[Penn Federalist Society President] Paul Cozzi thinks I need no introduction,” Wax said. “So I will just start.”
Titled “Stop Saying That: Dissent and Disagreement at Penn Law,” Wax's talk, which was only open to law students, faculty and staff, marked the professor's first oral rebuttal to the widespread backlash she received after the publication of a controversial op-ed that praised bourgeois values and argued that not all cultures are created equal. Co-written with Larry Alexander of the University of San Diego School of Law, the op-ed has garnered widespread criticism, both on campus and nationwide.
Wax emphasized that her talk to the law students was not meant to cover the same ground as her op-ed.
“My talk today is about that response but also about the academic enterprise itself,” she said. “How should academic institutions and especially law schools deal with dissent, with opinions and positions and some or many in the university disagree with?”
Wax began by contending that law schools and universities need a wide range of views and should avoid “unreasoned speech,” such as epithets, name calling and the rejection of arguments without justification.
“One does have the right to hurl crude words like yuck, ick, xenophobe, hater, and of course, the ubiquitous, accusatory 'racist,'” she said. “But that doesn’t make it the right thing to do or the right way to go about academic discourse.”
She added that such rules have been violated repeatedly by many of those who have responded to her op-ed, specifically the 33 Penn law professors who signed an open letter published in the Daily Pennsylvanian which "categorically reject[ed]" Wax's claims.
Referring to her colleagues at times as "the Gang of 33", she called them "quintessential anti-role models" and said she thought many of them had signed the letter without believing its contents.
“The piece contained no argument, no substance, no justification on the merits, no reasoning, and no explanation for any or all of what we said was in error,” Wax said.
She added that the article did more harm to Penn Law's “brand” than her op-ed did or could ever do.
Despite negative responses, Wax said she found that many responses on social media and in private emails were supportive and well-reasoned.
“There was a truly massive amount of commentary and reasoned discussion surrounding the op-ed in the media generally, with ordinary people adding thoughtful and intelligent views, almost all of them positive,” she said. “That was gratifying.”
Penn Law student Jacob Abrahamson said he agreed with Wax’s arguments concerning free speech because he believed that in modern society people tend to disagree on how dissenting opinions should be viewed. He added that he thought she made valid points about the open letter.
In the question and answer session following the talk, an audience member asked if there were any views that Wax would deem unwelcome in the mainstream market of ideas.
Wax responded that there are a small number of issues which she believes "society has settled."
“I will take slavery. We fought a war over that. Many people died over that. We have written that into our constitution,” Wax said. “It’s settled for maybe no other reason than that the anti-slavery side won. I think that would be an issue that would not be discussed or worthy of discussion.”
Penn Law student Ryan Plesh said he was dissatisfied with the topics that Wax covered in her talk and that she deflected his question about her distressing students who belong to minority groups.
“I believe that her op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer has created an environment that some students may not be comfortable with,” Plesh said. “I think if even one student is discouraged from participating in her class in any way, that’s evidence that there’s a new burden on her students that she’s created with this op-ed.”
Wax mentioned that she was invited to contribute more columns to The Philadelphia Inquirer because of the popularity of her op-ed and suggested her future pieces will be equally, if not more, controversial.
She specifically repudiated a colleague's claim that her stated support of Anglo-Protestant cultural norms in an interview with the DP was "code for Nazism." She also said explicitly that she was not a Nazi.
“I think that anytime that a person has to explicitly state that they don’t condone Nazism, that’s probably a statement about her,” Plesh said. “That’s not a great place for anyone to be in.”