ALBANY — Just moments into the start of a panel discussion Thursday night at Albany Law School, a group of students stood up, walked past the table of panelists and out of the back of the room.
They were protesting what they argued was an unrepresentative event that featured a speaker — Hans von Spakovsky of the conservative Heritage Foundation — they said holds objectionable views about minorities and immigrants and does not meet the academic standards of the school.
Just as Lindsey Johnson, president of the school’s Federalist Society, said the event was intended as a “platform to hear from opposing sides,” about a dozen students left the room, refusing to participate in any side of the night’s discussion.
“We as the Federalist Society do not take any side,” Johnson said as she introduced a panel that focused on President Donald Trump’s travel ban. “We were trying to set a neutral platform so people with different opinions can share them and discuss it in a law school setting,” she later added.
The protesters pointed to von Spakovsky’s history of advocating for stricter voter laws, emphasizing crimes of those in the country illegally and comments he made about African-American crime. One held up a sign that said von Spakovsky “normalized white supremacy.”
“You can’t say you are OK with someone who has devoted his life to creating an environment that is difficult for students to learn,” said Adriel Colon, president of the school’s Latin American Law Students Association, who walked out of the event. “If he is going to be there, people need to know there are future attorneys in the groups he disparages.”
Alicia Ouellette, dean of the law school, issued an implicit criticism of the protest when she helped introduce the discussion and emphasized the importance of a law school that engages in “challenging topics” and opposing views.
“I’m proud to work at a law school that values and encourages the discussion of challenging topics,” she said. “As a law school, we are at our best when we challenge bad ideas. If we cannot have hard conversations here, we are not living up to our mission; we are not being our best selves.”
Immigration lawyers on the panel similarly alluded to the fundamental nature of the law: engaging opposing views and arguing on the facts and the law. After the event was finished, the professor who moderated it said “this is exactly the kind of discussion we should be having, this is what a law school is for.”
But the protesters said they didn’t just oppose von Spakovsky’s work but also that the panel didn’t include a diverse set of speakers, including from the Muslim community.
Nadia Alirahi, president of the Muslim Law Student Association, said she and her organization had originally planned to co-host the event with the Federalist Society. After she was unable to find someone who could represent the Muslim perspective on the panel, she asked for the event to be postponed. It was not.
“We walked out because we are not represented by this panel,” she said. “We are an impacted group that is not represented, and I feel that is counterproductive.”
The protesters said they refused to stay for the event or directly engage Spakovsky, because they didn’t want to give him a chance to turn their protest into a broader condemnation of the law school.
After the event, von Spakovsky said it was “pathetic” the protesters didn’t engage him directly.
“These folks clearly have no idea what I’ve said before,” von Spakovsky said after the event. “I actually feel it’s kind of pathetic they don’t want to have an active dialogue.”