The Federalist Society Caves to “Rape Culture” Orthodoxy

George Will’s scheduled October 22 appearance at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio has drawn protests from those angered by his June column questioning the campus culture of victimhood and the anti-rape crusade. Anita Manur, director of the school’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, argued that Will’s commentary could “re-victimize and re-traumatize some of our students.” Likewise, when Scripps College decided to cancel a talk by Will, its president Lori Bettison-Varga noted that “sexual assault is … too important to be trivialized in a political debate.” In other words, debating the definition of sexual assault or the statistics on its prevalence is beyond the pale of acceptable speech.

Thanks to the efforts of the academic left, this view is increasingly prevalent on college campuses. However, some right-of-center organizations now seem terrified of challenging rape-culture orthodoxy. My personal encounter with this development involves the Federalist Society, the venerable national association of conservative and libertarian lawyers, law professors and students.

I first joined the Federalist Society’s speakers’ bureau in 1999. Over the years, I spoke at the student chapters of numerous schools including UCLA, Stanford, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and Georgetown, on topics ranging from various gender issues— feminism and the law, the politics of rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment—to religious liberty and international relations.

Not surprisingly, sometimes there was controversy, especially around topics related to sexual violence. Once, flyers advertising my talk at UCLA Law School were torn down and I ended up with an audience of four or five people. In 2009, a couple of weeks before my event at American University Law School titled, “Presumed Guilty? Rape, Feminism, and False Accusations,” the organizer warned me that the Women’s Law Association was planning a protest (their email summed up my talk as “Slut Blaming and Shaming”). It turned out to be an entirely civil affair; the protesters handed out brochures and asked pointed and occasionally hostile questions, but all within the bounds of reasonable debate. Afterwards, ironically, a female faculty member who had attended as a protestor told me that she completely agreed about the danger of undermining the presumption of innocence for sex crimes.

Four years later, in March 2013, a talk on a similar topic at St. Louis University School of Law turned out to be more contentious. It took place days after the verdict in the emotionally charged Steubenville rape trial; the promotional poster for the event, which stated that 41 percent of rape accusations are false (a figure from one study which I have never used as definitive) probably added fuel to the fire. When I arrived at the school, the student organizing the event told me the chapter’s faculty advisor had demanded to join in as my opponent—which was fine with me, though I found his tone during the debate confrontational to the point of discourtesy (at point he described my argument as “puerile”).

A few days later, Federalist Society president Eugene Meyer called to discuss the negative reactions to my talk and bluntly told me he was very anxious to avoid anything that might tar the organization with the “Republican war on women” brush. (He was taken aback when I informed him that the event also featured another viewpoint; the people who complained had neglected to mention that.) I told Meyer that I thought this was partly a matter of overly provocative advertising and partly of timing, and assured him that I always discussed this issue with the sensitivity it warrants. I believe he suggested avoiding the topic for the rest of the spring semester; I agreed.

In September and October, I gave several talks at law schools in Kentucky and in Minnesota, some of them dealing with sexual assault. These events went quite well; I even got thank-you notes from officers of two of three Minnesota chapters that had hosted me, saying they would recommend me to their successors for next year’s program.

Imagine my shock when, on November 11, Meyer called out of the clear blue to inform me that the Federalist Society had to drop me from the list of approved speakers due to extremely negative feedback from people who had attended the latest events and found them offensive. I was unable to find out any specifics—how many people complained, or what had offended them—except for one detail which turned out to be a blatant falsehood: supposedly, at one of the Minnesota events, my remarks had prompted a mass walkout. It occurred to me that this was probably someone’s creative spin on the mundane fact that a number of students had to leave during the question-and-answer period to go to class. Meyer said I was probably right and promised to take another look at the issue. For the time being, however, I was told not only to refuse any future invitations but to cancel several already scheduled events for that semester and the spring of 2014.

Meyer told me that he agreed I was raising important issues but perhaps there was something about my presentation that “triggered negative reactions.” I don’t claim to be a stellar speaker, but I’m fairly sure I’m not a particularly inflammatory one. Indeed, I always made sure to preface my critiques of “rape-crisis feminism” by noting that feminist anti-rape activism arose in the 1970s in response to real injustices, from rape convictions being overturned because the victim didn’t fight back enough to the use of “unchaste character” to impeach a woman’s credibility. Since one of my planned events was in Washington, D.C., where the Federalist Society’s national office is based, I suggested that Meyer or another official could attend and see for themselves. That suggestion was turned down. All in all, I got a clear message that the topics themselves were unwelcome; at one point, Meyer said that the phrase “false accusations of rape” should never have appeared in the title of an event.

A few days later I wrote to Peter Redpath, head of the society’s student division, to see if there was any chance of reversing the decision—at the very least, of letting me complete my already scheduled engagements. Redpath replied that Meyer’s decision was final and that part of the problem was that they had been consistently receiving “below average to lukewarm” reviews on my events for a while. His email concluded with the words, “And with this particular topic, there really can be no room for error due to the sensitivity of the issue. I hope you understand the position we’re in.”

Obviously, I have no idea what kind of reviews I had been getting—though a number of chapters that hosted me went on to invite me back. I can also say with certainty that the subject of poor feedback had never come up in my previous conversations with Meyer or other Federalist Society officers. During a conversation in the fall of 2012, there had been a passing mention of concern about low attendance at some of my events; however, that had not been a problem recently.

As a postscript, several months later a law student at a West Coast school who was very interested in having me speak at his chapter contacted the national office to ask if they might approve the event. They did not. After a fourteen-year relationship, I was blacklisted so thoroughly that you’d think I had showed up for a talk visibly drunk, or had used racial or sexual slurs.

I know that this isn’t a free speech issue. The Federalist Society, like any other organization, is within its rights to decide what speakers to sponsor. There was no breach of contract, only of basic courtesy. Yet, given that the society’s mission statement says it is “dedicated to fostering balanced and open debate about the fundamental principles of freedom, federalism, and the role of the judiciary,” its willingness to cave to those who would stifle debate is distressing—all the more so when the subject of that debate is an assault on the fundamental principles of freedom and justice.

Update: The Federalist Society responds here.


55 thoughts on “The Federalist Society Caves to “Rape Culture” Orthodoxy

  1. I agree that institutions within the conservative movement have been coopted by the somewhat surprising libertarian infatuation with judicial activism promoting SSM. To the extent that phenomenon has encompassed the Federalist Society, I think that’s very problematic. I don’t know that there is evidence that it bears directly on the issues we’re discussing, however.

  2. I’ve known Gene for more than a quarter-century, but I must say that I’m not surprised. When holding a debate on same-sex “marriage” at the National Lawyers’ Convention a few years ago, the anti-deviant “marriage” side was represented by Richard Epstein, who prefaced his comments by endorsing deviant “marriage.”

    1. Having said what I said yesterday, by the way, I don’t believe you have proved anything about Gene by that comment. If anyone is amenable to being trusted with making an argument against the jurisprudence of a given policy notwithstanding his personal sympathy for that policy, it is Richard Epstein.

      In fact, if what you describe proves anything about Gene (who may or may not pass on such decisions) or the Society, it is precisely what I would expect: That our personal opinions about whether a law is wise, compassionate or fashionable has no bearing on whether it is constitutional.

  3. As a member of a chapter that brought Ms. Young, she was just not a good speaker. I greatly admire her writing and ideas, but she is not someone who articulates those ideas in speech as well as most of the other Fed Soc speakers our school has brought, and would likely turn many people off as a result. Good move by Fed Soc.

    1. May I ask which chapter and what talk you attended? Just curious.

      Again, if it was a matter of my alleged overall poor quality as a speaker, it’s a bit odd that FedSoc kept me on for 14 years until there were a couple of complaints on this particular topic, no?

  4. Cancelling a speaker because you wish to avoid the false war on women charge is cowardly, and I am quite disgusted with TFS. It just makes it look like they beleive the charge is true. What they should be doing is encouraging more speakers who will challenge the truthfulness of the false war on women charge. You dont answer leftist lies with cringing silence and hiding under a bed, but with constantly spoken truth.
    And the fact that TFS wont in any way list or describe the specifics of these “student complaints” (even with names redacted) so she cant even answer them, is even more suspicious.

  5. > “It’s a shame that despite the past opportunities afforded to her by the Federalist Society, Cathy Young considered the loss of future public platforms, honoraria and travel stipends to be worth “calling out” the Society’s leadership…”

    Maybe you didn’t read Cathy’s article very thoroughly, Mr. Coleman, particularly the part where she said,

    >> “After a fourteen-year relationship, I was blacklisted so thoroughly that you’d think I had showed up for a talk visibly drunk, or had used racial or sexual slurs.”

    It sounds like Cathy’s “loss of future public platforms”, etc., was already happening before she called them out.

    > is part of a conspiracy, acting dishonestly or is otherwise not worthy of simple gratitude

    Perhaps you’re the one in every million persons accepts being fired with gratitude, in which case, I’m happy for you.

    1. Maybe I didn’t read the article very thoroughly, Lee. But maybe I did. I read pretty good.

      I don’t think I said that Cathy should withhold her criticism because doing so would have an effect on her lost opportunities. Maybe my writing … not so good. I tried to say that the reason for the action taken involved the Society’s legitimate interests in managing its programs and, in particular, protecting its volunteer members.

      I agree, however, with your suggestion that I am a one-in-a-million person, and I’m sure you are, too. So I’m happy for both of us.

      1. What this thread suggests to me is that what the Left learned from gay marriage is now being applied to a broader array of issues. Even very mild threats to one’s employment tends to produce outsized avoidance.

        The Federalist Society is a great thing. The shutting down of career opportunities for constitutionalists would be a terrible thing that is apparently happening.

        And to think I thought it was only gay marriage that led to legal blacklisting.

      2. Let me get this straight, Mr. Coleman. Are you saying that the Federalist Society dropped Ms. Young as a speaker because it feared adverse consequences to its members and supporters on college campuses if it did not do so?

  6. This reminds of me of all the armchair quarterbacks who insist that Israel should “stop pussyfooting around” and “take care of the problem” and “wipe out” its enemies. It’s so easy to be aggressive and bold when you’re playing with someone else’s money.

    I’m also a former Federalist Society chapter president. The Society, like any other organization, is entitled to rank its preservation and the benefits of its members high up in its lit of priorities. Now, when universities and other wealthy, powerful institutions cave in to bullying and intimidation, that’s one thing. They can’t credibly claim to face an existential threat from the sort of juvenile antics employed by those who wish to shut down debate. The only threat they face is the constriction of their political and social comfort.

    But the Society is not that. The student members who organize and host speakers are just law students, a notably endangered species in terms of employment prospects. When the speaker leaves, the students who have hosted the event remain, and to the extent a given campus or law school environment makes it possible for a Society chapter or its leadership or members to be personally subjected to intimidation, that isn’t the speaker’s problem any more. But it is the problem for the students, and if you think this doesn’t bubble up into the employment calculus, you’re kidding yourself. I myself nearly lost a job offer because of my Society leadership — and things were not nearly so rabid as the “rape culture” people have made campuses today.

    The Society itself won’t be harmed by such nasty games. It has long suffered abuse from ideologues who would never dream of allowing even a small slice of the broad range of opinion the Society invites and promotes in law schools and elsewhere in public debate. But it does owe its student members and volunteers an obligation not to have their efforts on the Society’s behalf blow up in their faces and to risk their remaining time in law school, much less their professional futures.

    I don’t know that these concerns were what motivated Gene Meyer to make these decisions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. It’s a shame that despite the past opportunities afforded to her by the Federalist Society, Cathy Young considered the loss of future public platforms, honoraria and travel stipends to be worth “calling out” the Society’s leadership and taking the position that this private organization — which owes her nothing in terms of explanations or justification — is part of a conspiracy, acting dishonestly or is otherwise not worthy of simple gratitude for the past and the benefit of the doubt about a complex future — and not only hers.

    1. This whole analysis seems problematic. If Ms. Young’s content was substandard, or needlessly inflammatory, or otherwise deficient the Fed Soc. should remove her as a speaker for those reasons. If however removing her is being driven by law students being extorted and coerced by the school/their fellow students/possible employers the answer to that is not to give in, or provide a (for now) “acceptable” alternative, it is to expose and fight that coercion.

      1. Again, that’s great rhetoric. It might even be a good idea for the Society in the abstract. But reading between the lines, I perceive that student leaders — not the professionals — are being hurt, and don’t have the capital or the appetite to “expose and fight” it while also trying to get their degrees and get a job.

      2. Isn’t that one of the major points of an organization like the Fed Soc? I understand Joe and Jane 2L don’t want to rock the boat but the Fed Soc as a whole sure could. It can fight that fight without revealing the specific student and drawing on considerable national resources. That is if it has the will and a belief it should support its members and its own future.

        If the problem isn’t Young being wrong or incompetent and instead that students must cower in fear less their affiliation with Fed Soc and its beliefs cause them to get fired/not hired/harassed lets just shut the whole thing down and spend the money that would go to dues and donations somewhere where they might do students and the country some good. Heck, lets burn the money so that it at least produces heat.

    2. ” I myself nearly lost a job offer because of my Society leadership — and things were not nearly so rabid as the ‘rape culture’ people have made campuses today.”
      Well, you certainly do give a wonderful rationale for knuckling under. Free speech advocates everywhere are very proud.

      1. You’re a big sport, Fred! At the end of the day, in fact, I would not have done anything differently. But not everyone is as idealistic as you and I are. These kids are already taking that risk, and I applaud them for it. That doesn’t mean there are no limits, however.

        (Of course you are aware that this is not a “free speech” issue.)

      1. Please don’t be sad. That will only make the rest of us sad, too!

        You can read about why the Federalist Society exists here: “Taking bold stands” is not, per se, part of the mission, yet it has surely done so for decades.

        Taking the specific “bold stand” you or Cathy Young want it to take, the way you want it to take it, and regardless of the effect doing so might have on others, however, is something else. And it could be — remember, I’m only speculating; I don’t know a thing — but it could be that this something else is not a good choice based on what the organization’s goals, per that link, are. Those may require decisions that are actually more complex or nuanced than the tough-guy postures usually favored by anonymous blog commenters or even bloggers themselves.

    3. What is the point of standing for something if you aren’t willing to defend it. You and The Federalist Society sound like homas Paine’s “summer soldiers” who are willing to fight only when it’s convenient or victory is certain. Once The Federalist Society put popular approval and political expediency above their beliefs, they betrayed those beliefs and showed that they have no integrity.

      You say that The Federalist Society won’t be harmed; yet it has been. I will join others who now see the society as phonies and will no longer trust anything they say or publish. Without immediate change in national leadership, any student chapter with any integrity will cut their ties with the national organization as will any speakers or politicians.

    4. You state that:

      ” It’s a shame that despite the past opportunities afforded to her by the Federalist Society, Cathy Young considered the loss of future public platforms, honoraria and travel stipends to be worth “calling out” the Society’s leadership and taking the position that this private organization — which owes her nothing in terms of explanations or justification ”

      You may “owe” her nothing but your integrity and credibility and that of your organization rests on how all of us perceive your commitment to your professed goals and ideals.

      This sounds like the sour grapes reaction of a frustrated “company man” whose attempt to enforce conformity through leveraging the perks and prestige of his organization has been rebuffed by an idealistic underling.

      Rather than refuting her allegations, your response, as well as Greg’s responses above, seem to reflect an organization that values conformity and loyalty over integrity and rigorous debate. In short, you’re proving her point. Very disappointing.

    1. Right. An event titled “The Campus Sexual Assault Epidemic.” TFS has apparently accepted the premise that Cathy Young has so forcefully argued against. No wonder you guys fired her. Maybe you should have simply explained that she does not represent the new ideals of TFS rather than offering some weasel-lawyer crap that says nothing. At the very least, you’d have some integrity.

    2. Except they had every opportunity to do that at the start of every semester. They chose otherwise. Why is that?

  7. How is it that we, as a society, can claim to abhor bullying, yet embrace its methods when it suits our message?

  8. Another clear example of the curse of creeping along with nonprofits. They are rife with the petty politics, pusillanimity and puerility of the college faculties they work with.

    Cathy should continue to use social media and book tours to build her audience. When you see what has gone on at CATO, now Federalist, and Qatari money in Brookings, the for profit market make a hell of a lot more sense.

  9. Leftists lie. Their version of “Truth” is ever-changing and is defined as anything that advances the revolution. The treatment shown to Ms. Young is contemptible and Mr. Meyer ought to resign. Out of shame, if for no other reason.

  10. Same condition faced by clergy: live by donations of your auditors, live by their whims, which today are lefty, tomorrow righty. The customer is always right. Thus the Pauline/Ghandian advice to live by the work of your own hands, not donations, not someone else’s whims.

  11. A mendacious letter-writing campaign is the sort of thing that the politico-cultural left engages in. It appears that the FS reacted without investigating the validity of the complaints. One does not maintain one’s integrity by cowardly evasions.

  12. Many people have observed, for many years, how a trivial number of complaints, even only one, will cow large organizations. This has now been institutionalized, mostly by the Left and most effectively on campus, as the heckler’s veto, but the issue is a bit different, in that the left-wing heckler’s veto just gives college administrators cover for what they want to do. I doubt that’s the case with the Federalist Society… but it is also the case that one or two letters, or even (especially) one off-hand comment from a big donor, will make many organizations run for cover. They won’t ever tell you ten truth about it, you just have to put it behind you and move on. In the end, it’s their loss.

  13. Unfortunately there are ample numbers of conservatives who lack the atavistic urges and lusts of our liberal[?] friends. Corny I know but being a Leftist means never having to say you’re sorry.
    An occasional outburst of primal aggression wouldn’t hurt at times, it might even cause the Left to stamp their feet, grind their teeth, rent their hair, and dash off letters to the Times.

  14. So to avoid the appearance of a war on women, you wage actual war on a woman. Oh, Federalist Society, you are a sucker.

  15. What ever happened to ‘I am woman, hear me roar’?
    It seems now that the delicate flowers of womanhood must be protected from even speech that might make them re-victimized or re-traumatized in an instant? Will we also get them to swoon? I always have felt cheated when reading Victorian Age literature, they had delicate women swooning left and right at any thought.

  16. This development frankly nauseates me. I share FedSoc national HQ’s desire to avoid the “war on women” label, but I deplore its failure to recognize that absolutely any viewpoint on the subject that deviates from left-wing orthodoxy risks having that label unfairly slapped on it. FedSoc should be more willing to support its student chapters and speakers when they push back against these calumnies. They should be willing to stand up and explain that their left-wing critics are wrong, and that respect for due process and other principles that Ms. Young et. al. defend are anything but salvos in a “war on women.”

    1. “I share FedSoc national HQ’s desire to avoid the “war on women” label …”

      Until people realize that they have already surrendered, when they flee random and ridiculous tropes like ‘war on women’, there will be no progress. This cat has just rolled over for the Left and is begging for a cookie.

      Who cares if a bunch of Leftists say libertarian conservatives commit amorphous wars on women? It’s pathetic to see so-called free thinkers quiver, simply because a Leftist paints them with a talking point.

    2. Akil – if you “share FedSoc national HQ’s desire to avoid the “war on women” label”, are you actively challenging the FedSoc national HQ’s actual “war on” *this* ” woman” ?

      If not, why not ?

  17. Well this is one half of the story. As a former chapter President I can tell you that attendance numbers and performance reviews are critically important. A speaker with low attendance numbers is not worth the flight and honorarium, and that’s especially the case when low numbers are combined with poor reviews. I bet there is more to the story.

    1. Greg, do you have any specific evidence that Cathy’s attendance was low? Or do you have any specific evidence that Cathy had in fact received justifiably negative reviews?

      Here’s an idea: rather than simply posting “I bet there is more”, why don’t you use your influence with the home office to find out exactly why they let Cathy go?

    2. Greg, do you have any observations — numbers, facts, comments from human beings — to accompany your sage “it’s not clear to me …” disquiet?

      Or do you just want to impugn the author?

      1. I’m sure the Federalist Society will have a response. It’s sad that a credible organization like The Manhattan Institute would run a one-sided piece of commentary without first soliciting the other side. Hence my comment that this is “one half of the story.” I’m not about to abandon my support of an organization that has always supported conservative and libertarian principles and values on the say so of one commentator.

        I’ll reserve judgment until I hear both sides of the story.

      2. The Federalist Society posted a nonresponse. A bunch of words that say little to nothing. They are running scared for some reason.

    3. Except, Mr. McNeal, they never told her that “low attendance” was the legitimate, content-neutral reason for the decision. They told her the decision was wholly content-based. Our lawyer training teaches us that shifting explanations for decisions is strong evidence of falsification. Interesting that as a former chapter president you are trying to shift the Federalist Society explanation. This reflects poorly on the Federalist Society and people who list it on their resumes.

      1. For the record, I mentioned that low attendance at several events was mentioned to me in passing as an issue during an unrelated discussion in November 2012.

        Ironically, attendance at my last six events was excellent — in fact, I remember the president of one of the Minnesota chapters (William Mitchell, I believe) mentioning that it was the highest turnout they’d had that semester.

        In any event, if the Fed Soc had wanted to cut me from their speakers’ bureau due to general poor ratings or attendance, they had every opportunity to do that when updating their speakers’ list as they do before the start of each academic year (when all the speakers are asked to submit their most up-to-date information for posting on the site). This was done in the middle of the school year, with a cancellation of invitations already extended to me, and with an explicit reference to content.

    4. Greg, you’ve compounded the problem here by calling in the Manhattan Institute to censor Cathy’s account. Take a cue from the Vatican these days, transparency is better.

      I personally do not know why the Federalist Society did this and their bureaucratic non-response is not very satisfying. I think transparency would be the better and more courageous response. And more effective. If you cut a writer mid-season, of course she’s going to notice, the question of why matters.

      I don’t think they are unwilling to confront difficult issues, so what was it? If they don’t tell us, we can’t know.

  18. Knavery (the Federalist Society) in the face of vile stupidity (the ‘rape culture’ bigots), abets evil by placating the monstrous.

  19. I’m not clear on why you couldn’t just go ahead and make the already-scheduled talks, without the Federalist Society’s sanction. Are they able to bar you from campuses?


    1. A chapter cannot hold an event that is not green-lit by the national office (and if they did hold it, I would not get an honorarium or travel expenses paid — that also comes from the national office).

  20. It appears that axiom is true: (paraphrase) ‘Those organizations & foundations overtime of not specifically conservative, become leftist overtime’. The Federalists seem to have been bitten by this bug and have yet to seek a cure.

  21. The left has a history of organized protests and letter writing to shut down opposing points of view that goes back years. Rush Limbaugh is the most prominent example but there are many others. A Los Angeles talk show host endured a similar campaign 20 years ago because he is a black libertarian. It nearly succeeded but he is still on the radio. Tammy Bruce is another example.

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