A group of students at the University of California at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law circulated a petition last week calling on law professor John Yoo to "repudiate" a 2002 memo he wrote when he worked for the Bush Justice Department or "resign" his academic post. The memo advised that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Oddly, the petition writers claimed that their attempt to drive Yoo from academia did not "constitute an attack on academic freedom."
"The choice is up to (Yoo). He is free to do what he wants," explained petition circulator Michael Anderson, age 35. Besides, he said, the petition concerned what Yoo did as a government official, not what he said in class.
Bunk: The only reason the petition is not an attack on academic freedom is because it didn't work -- a testament to Boalt Hall's commitment to the free exchange of ideas, I might add. There are no faculty committees considering pressuring Yoo to resign, noted acting dean Robert Berring Jr. Yoo himself has no such plans.
If the students had gotten what they wanted, however, the petition most certainly would send a chill through the halls of academia.
As one professor told me, the students really were looking for "a platform to vent their outrage" against abuses of Iraqi prisoners. That's academ-ese for witch hunt. The students couldn't castigate a U.S. soldier, so they targeted the closest body they could inflict their angry views on.
Citing a story in Newsweek, the petition charged that Yoo effectively opened "the door to acts of outright torture, rape and murder" of Iraqi prisoners. Someone even posted flyers of prisoners being mistreated at Abu Ghraib prison -- with Yoo's head superimposed on a U.S. soldier's head.
The law students who signed the petition apparently can't fathom that the Justice Department memo made some reasonable legal arguments. To wit: Al Qaeda operatives don't qualify for Geneva Conventions prisoner-of-war status because they don't fight for a nation, there's no clear chain of command in their organization, they don't wear uniforms, and they do not obey the laws of war toward civilians. As one Boalt Hall alumnus with expertise in this area said of the Yoo memo, "I think it's a legitimate legal argument. I don't agree with his conclusion."
The same person also strongly disagreed with Yoo's argument that the Taliban don't fall under the Geneva Conventions. He believed the memo failed to explore the repercussions of determining that the international law is not binding. Too bad such meaty criticism was not found in the petition.
Anderson, who just graduated from Boalt Hall, dismissed any legitimacy in the Justice Department argument, instead charging that Yoo "assisted his client in perpetuating illegal acts" and is guilty of "aiding and abetting."
So if someone writes an opinion you don't like, that person is breaking the law?
"We're not trying to make his opinion-espousing illegal. What he did is illegal," Anderson answered.
Now I see why Anderson says the petition doesn't limit academic thought. After all, if he had his way, Yoo would be free to think what he wants -- from a jail cell.
"What do the students want?" Yoo asked. "Do they want to be taught by teachers who spoon-feed them what the students (already) believe?"
"A more responsible petition," a Yoo critic told me, "would be one that said we think that your legal opinion led to what happened at Abu Ghraib. We would like to have a forum." That forum would allow a discussion on the policy and legal arguments concerning detainee status, the critic said.
But the law students preferred the petition-and-anonymous-poster route -- which denied Yoo a platform to respond.
Consider the petition's call for Yoo to repudiate what he wrote in 2002. If Yoo were to repudiate the memo, he would have no ethics. Yet only then would Yoo demonstrate the sort of ethics the students considered worthy of a law professor -- no ethics, but he would agree with them.
Yoo decided not to attend Boalt Hall's graduation, as more than a quarter of the graduates wore armbands protesting Yoo's "aiding and abetting war crimes." He told me he didn't want to interfere with the commencement celebration.
Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of San Francisco declined to attend City College of San Francisco's graduation after protesters warned they would picket his presence in light of his vote to go to war in Iraq. A spokesman explained that Lantos didn't want to tread on the festivities.
"To call for the resignation of a professor shows a desire to exclude people from the intellectual community because of what they think," said Yoo. In a small way, it is working.