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Released on May 6, 2024
Monday Morning Message 5.6.24 Campus Protests and Law Day.

“Many problems develop when communication between people is difficult or non-existent. It is the root of all violent outbreaks, war, and all general disharmony. We live in a world with many fellow human beings and to realize that each person is not entirely alone will make alienation an obsolete human characteristic.” —Allison Kraus, Kent State student, age 19 (April 23, 1951 - May 4, 1970)

Law Day, held annually on May 1, is a national day set aside to celebrate the rule of law. Law Day provides an opportunity to understand how law and the legal process protect our liberty, strive to achieve justice, and contribute to the freedoms that all Americans share.

Last week I had the honor of speaking at the Mahoning County Bar Association Law Day luncheon in Youngstown. Below is an excerpt from my remarks.

May 4, 1970. It was the day I decided to go to law school.

It was a warm spring day. I was a freshman at Oberlin College. A few days earlier, President Richard Nixon had expanded the Vietnam War by invading Cambodia. Antiwar college protests erupted throughout the country. 

About 1 p.m. in the afternoon, the news hit us in the gut as we huddled around TVs and radios on our sheltered college campus. In just 13 seconds, the Ohio National Guard fired over 60 shots at student protesters at nearby Kent State University. Nine students were wounded, one of them paralyzed for life; and four students — Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and Bill Schroeder — were killed. 

Bill Schroeder was an Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) student. He was not protesting. He was watching the protest and was shot in the back. Sandy Scheuer was not protesting. She was an honor student walking to class. Allison Kraus and Jeff Miller were peacefully protesting. I didn’t know them, but I’ve never forgotten their names.

Most of the Kent State students were protesting peacefully, and the unjustified, deadly response by the Ohio National Guard is a stain on our national legacy of free speech, peaceful protest, and civil disobedience.

During my college years, I engaged in peaceful protests against the Vietnam War, and I’m proud of my involvement. But at the same time, I opposed attacks on ROTC facilities and other buildings, and when there was violence in the name of peace, I was sickened and angry. I remember thinking….. they’re hurting our cause.

We must acknowledge that throughout history there have been those who have hijacked peaceful protests and co-opted and subverted just causes by engaging in harassment, lawlessness, and/or hate speech.

Fast forward 54 years. Protests have erupted on college campuses. This time it’s not about a war in Southeast Asia – it’s about the war in the Middle East against the terrorist group Hamas and the resulting tragic loss of thousands of innocent Palestinian and Israeli lives. Some have protested peacefully, and we must support and defend their right to do so. We must affirm our commitment to protecting free speech–even speech that we may disagree with.

But liberty to think and say what you believe involves taking responsibility as well. Free speech is not a license to disrupt someone else’s free speech, threaten, harass, intimidate, or injure others, or damage and deface campuses and buildings.

Even worse, much of what we’re seeing on some college campuses today is hate speech, and in some cases, hate crimes. I’ve seen first-hand how hate can tear us apart. As an Ohio State Senator, I authored Ohio’s hate crime law, and years later, in an ironic twist of fate, I successfully defended the law’s constitutionality as Ohio Attorney General in the Ohio Supreme Court. Antisemitism and Islamophobia – along with all forms of hate – have no place in our law schools, universities, or anywhere else. Although all views can be expressed, expressions of hate and bigotry must be strongly and unequivocally condemned and hate crimes must be prosecuted. We must protect the safety of all our students.

The remedy for ideas that we think are wrong is not to seek to silence them but to counter them with better ideas, evidence, and arguments. We should embrace and advocate for diversity not only in race, culture, religion, and sexual orientation but also diversity of thought. When our students face disagreements, they should respond with respect for the humanity of those they disagree with. But today we’re seeing few attempts at finding common ground.

A critical part of the early anti-war movement was campus “teach-ins.” I participated in many of these sessions as a student at Oberlin College. They were genuine, facilitated efforts to understand the complex historical context of the Vietnam War and to engage in vigorous but civil discussion and debate. We need to bring back campus teach-ins. They can open minds if there are clear, enforceable ground rules for respectful dialogue.

We must protect free speech, peaceful protest, and civil disobedience. We must respect diversity of thought and perspective, engage in civil discourse, and find common ground. We must condemn and fight hate, harassment, intimidation, and violence with moral clarity and uphold the rule of law. Our leadership challenge – and the imperative - is defending and practicing all these values in the same breath at the same time.

Those are not liberal or conservative values.  They are the values of the nation upon which we were founded as we endeavor to be a more perfect union. Fidelity to the rule of law does not mean that the law is always just. It is not. We all have work to do in making it better. But when our nation has achieved anything of consequence, it has done so most often through civil debate, mutual respect, and measured compromise.

In all our lives there are moments of truth, and as lawyers, now is our moment of truth.  Now more than ever, we need lawyer-leaders to defend and promote these values.

I think that’s what Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and Bill Schroeder died for on May 4, 1970. 54 years later, on this Law Day, and for the rest of our lives, we must honor their legacy.

Have a great day. Have a great week.

The views and opinions expressed in my Monday Morning Message are solely my own and do not reflect the views and opinions of the law school or the university.

My best,

Lee

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