Cornell University law professor William Jacobson thought he had grown callous to petitions for his ouster. Activists—including students, faculty, and alumni—have called for his firing on numerous occasions since he launched the popular conservative website Legal Insurrection in 2008, but the campaign against him has taken personal attacks to new levels in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody.
“On [the Black Lives Matter] issue, you cannot deviate one iota or they will try to get you kicked out of the school, they will falsely accuse you of being racist, they will do a ‘name and shame’ campaign against you,” Jacobson told the Washington Free Beacon. “It’s been a problem for multiple decades in academia.”
BLM supporters, in a coordinated effort with the Black Law Student Association, Cornell alumni, and law school faculty, are calling on the school to sack Jacobson for publicly critiquing BLM’s ideology. An alumni petition began on June 11 calling on the university to “take immediate action” to drive him out. The professor said his accusers are disingenuously attacking his character to force the school’s hand.
In prior years, people who called on Cornell to fire Jacobson were generally off-campus political and ideological opponents, and the Cornell administrators defended his right to speak publicly. Now those calls are coming from within the Cornell community and the administration has remained silent.
“What we need in this circumstance is strong administrative leadership,” Jacobson said. “It’s a very repressive atmosphere and it’s only getting worse. There appears to be a zero-tolerance for any criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Cornell did not respond to a request for comment.
The showdown emerged after Jacobson wrote two articles in early June that criticized the “fabricated narrative” that emerged after a Ferguson, Mo., police officer fatally shot Michael Brown in 2014—President Obama’s Justice Department determined that the shooting was justified—as well as the riots and looting that followed the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.
Twenty-one members of Cornell’s law faculty penned a letter to the editor at the Cornell Daily Sun calling Jacobson a racist who was masquerading as an informed commentary writer.
“These commentators are the defenders of institutionalized racism and violence. They are entitled to their viewpoints. We do not name them, so as to deprive them of a larger platform for their racist speech,” the letter says. “As clinical teachers who have spent our lives promoting social justice, combatting discrimination and teaching tolerance, we cannot allow their hateful vitriol to go unchallenged.”
The organizers behind the letter did not return a request for comment.
College administrators bowed to activists and summoned Jacobson to a meeting on June 8. The meeting was contentious, as law school dean Eduardo Peñalver read the professor letters from alumni calling for his firing, according to Jacobson.
“Not a single coworker, alumni, or student who signed letters to the editor [at the Cornell Daily Sun] contacted me before their publication,” he said.
After the meeting, Peñalver, who did not return a request for comment, publicly condemned Jacobson in a statement, calling the posts “both offensive and poorly reasoned.” Jacobson said the dean had abused his position.
“Deans do not normally take an institutional position on faculty speech, and that’s what I think makes this story truly extraordinary. The dean of the law school has decided to express his personal views as an institutional view,” Jacobson said. “He can state his personal opinion all he wants, but when he’s speaking on behalf of the institution, his personal opinions should not enter into it.”
Jacobson expressed deep frustration with academia excluding conservative opinions from the conversation. The atmosphere has hardened in recent years into a “cancel culture” that punishes those who break from liberal orthodoxy on numerous issues. Jacobson said such an attitude has only fueled resentment on campus. He expressed concern that “hateful reactions” that have been used to silence academics are spreading “in the whole society.”
Jacobson has won support from some Cornell students. The Ivy League school’s College Republicans praised the professor for giving students a critical perspective on a contentious issue. Chapter president Weston Barker said that punishing any academic for ideological reasons is counter to the mission of the university.
“At no point, to our knowledge, has Professor Jacobson ever devalued the lives of black Americans. Instead, he has been critical of a movement which demands radical policy reform,” Barker said. “One would hope that when confronted with policy demands which have the potential to seriously reshape the workings of public life, a professor employed by one of our nation’s foremost schools of law would approach and investigate such demands with learned, yet critical care. Professor Jacobson has done as much.”
Backlash for criticism of BLM is not limited to Cornell. Academics are demanding a University of Chicago professor have his senior editing position revoked after he criticized activists’ ties to the “defund the police” movement. Jacobson said intimidation tactics have been effective at silencing independent thinkers.
“I have had people who have written for [Legal Insurrection] who have to use pseudonyms because they’re in academia and they’re afraid of retribution,” he said. “I have many students who approach me to show me support, but they do it behind closed doors because they’re scared of being attacked.”