Police, administrators and representatives from the National Lawyers Guild observed as dozens protested outside of the glass walls of Myron Taylor Hall chanting slogans and waving signs at those who gathered for the controversial Discussion on Religious Liberty debate that was about to take place inside.
Hosted by the Cornell chapter of the Federalist Society, the event was a debate between Prof. Nelson Tebbe and Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom: A non-profit organization that provides pro-bono legal representation on cases supporting right-wing positions on various issues, including abortion, religious expression and LGBTQ+ rights.
The ADF is known for its conservative activism and involvement in several landmark Supreme Court cases, and is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center due to its anti-LGBTQ+ stances.
The discussion, closed to non-law students, was sparsely-attended and tame in stark contrast to the highly publicized protests to a similar Federalist Society panel and ADF representative at Yale Law School a week prior.
In the opening statements, both Tebbe and Lorence addressed the controversy of the event, with Lorence referencing the ADF’s work promoting non-LGBTQ+ issues, such as representing Christians facing religious persecution abroad, and Tebbe defending the decision to participate in the debate.
“Even if I would have opposed a law school decision to invite this organization, this event was organized by students. These are students I care about and to whom I owe a responsibility as their teacher,” Tebbe said in an interview with The Sun following the event.
The debate itself focused on Shurtleff v. Boston, a legal case currently being heard at the Supreme court regarding whether Boston City Hall’s flagpoles counted as government speech under the First Amendment, with a question and answer period remaining largely constrained to the case.
Craig Wickham grad, who organized the event, served as a moderator.
“I think it went extremely well,” Wickham said. “We were expecting it to go smoothly because the professors have argued together on multiple occasions without any sort of issues, and there were things brewing online, but it turned out to not be problematic whatsoever.”
Tebbe expressed appreciation for the protestors’ remaining undisruptive and lauded the event as disagreement in a period of hyper-polarization.
“There is value in confronting people who you disagree with, criticizing them and allowing them to speak back,” Tebbe said.
Lorence declined to be interviewed by The Sun.
The fact that the event fell on Trans Day of Visibility caused distrust and outrage among the Cornell community, given the ADF’s litigations and public stances against trans-inclusive policies, according to various protestors. A petition put forth to have the event rescheduled or canceled was unsuccessful.
As the event ended, attendees mingled and filed out of the lecture hall, through groups of protesters performing a “die-in,” lying on the floor as if dead.
Tiffany Kumar ’24 was one such protester present at the event.
“I really think that as a student here, I don’t feel comfortable being a part of an institution that will support a speaker such as this or an organization such as ADF, which is why I think it’s important that they’re not able to just do this about any sort of opposition,” Kumar said.
Logan Gibbs-Porter ’24, co-President of Haven, the undergraduate LGBTQ+ union, helped to organize the protest.
“The protest was necessary to demonstrate that these kinds of actions come with consequences even if you don’t realize it,” Gibbs-Porter said. “To help them realize that these are people that you are hurting.”
Gibbs-Porter emphasized the importance of direct action.
“They are bringing people that are challenging human rights, people who generate and promote rhetoric to incentivize the hate of certain groups; we should challenge that and we have every right to,” Gibbs-Porter said. “This creates a safe environment from those with offensive beliefs that inflict harm on the daily lives of others.”
LGBTQ+ Law student organization OutLaw, and the LGBTQ+ graduate student organization Qgrads meanwhile took a different approach, organizing community spaces celebrating Trans Day of Visibility as an indirect protest to the ADF, and encouraged supporters not to directly engage with the Federalist Society’s event.
“We made a strategic decision because the Alliance Defending Freedom often fundraises off of outrage, and we did not want to contribute to that so we chose instead to focus on positive celebration,” said Matt Nelson, the co-president of Outlaw.
Qgrad co-president Andrew Scheldorf expressed similar rationales.
“Qgrads made the decision that we were going to support this community space, this indirect form of protesting and encourage other indirect forms of protesting… primarily because of a similar event that happened at Yale the week before, where the law students and other students got together to directly protest and ADF used that direct protests to stir up their supporters,” Scheldorf said.
The two organizers both referenced the controversial protest at Yale a week prior, which the ADF capitalized through media attention including a blog post currently displayed on the front page of their website, an appearance on Fox News and a podcast discussion by Joe Rogan.
Many, however, were unsatisfied with OutLaw and Qgrad’s approach.
“These people are going to twist whatever we say no matter what twist whatever you do,” Kumar said. “The only way we can beat these institutional systemic issues is through collective action and direct action.”
In interviews with The Sun, Nelson and Scheldorf defended OutLaw and Qgrads’ strategy in light of these critiques.
“Celebration is protest when you’re part of a group that is being targeted. In this way simply celebrating who you are is an active protest,” Nelson said.