|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Wednesday, June 9, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle 6-9-04
Editorial: The right to be wrong
WE PROFOUNDLY disagree with the reasoning UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law professor John Yoo provided to the Bush administration to justify its abandonment of applying the Geneva Conventions to prisoners in Afghanistan.
Yoo made those arguments in a memo he co-authored four months after Sept. 11, 2001, as a senior official in the Justice Department. He was then on leave from Boalt, and has since returned to Berkeley.
His memo appears to have been part of a creative effort by Bush administration lawyers to exploit every conceivable angle that may have opened the door to abusive practices in detention centers not only in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq and possibly at Guantanamo Bay as well.
It's predictable that many on the Berkeley campus would disagree with his role in building a questionable legal edifice regarding treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody. But these disagreements have taken an unfortunate turn, with some students, led by 2004 Boalt graduate Michael Anderson, passing around a petition calling on Yoo to resign from the university.
By doing so, the petitioners show a pitiful ignorance of what academic freedom means. Their response makes us wonder just how much they learned while at Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement.
Those same law students may one day have to appear in court to argue with lawyers and experts who take positions completely contrary to theirs. We expect they'll challenge their opponents based on the strength of their own arguments -- rather than try to get them banned from the courtroom.
The petitioners make the contorted argument that their efforts to force Yoo from Berkeley have to do with actions he took while a government official. In other words, they want him to leave the university because of what he did while he wasn't at the university. Could someone at Boalt please explain to us the logic behind that reasoning?
As a tenured professor, Yoo is entitled to take any position he wants, however unpopular it might be. Academic rigor is enhanced by the clash of ideas. The university would become an intellectually vacuous place if it were inhabited only by people who agreed with each other.
The reasoning of those who want Yoo sacked mirrors the contorted argumentation Yoo used to justify abandoning international laws the United States has ratified. (For example, Yoo concluded in his January 2002 memo that "customary international law, whatever its source or content, does not bind the president or restrict the actions of the U.S. military" because it has no status under federal law.)
But forcing Yoo off campus is an act that seems more appropriate for a university in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. It has no place on a campus known worldwide for its defense of dissent and free speech. A better way to take on Yoo would be to challenge him to a debate and counter his disturbing analyses of international law with sound legal arguments. Running him out of the university is not the way to do it.
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