As political pressure mounts for a thorough investigation of the Bush administration's treatment of detainees in the years after 9/11, one local iteration of the debate over torture, civil rights, and national security refuses to die down. Whether you see it as a tempest in a teapot or the gravest of moral battles, the subject of former Justice Department lawyer and torture apologist John Yoo's ongoing role as a professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law is still a hot one. So hot, in fact, that it may have started to warp the law school's bureaucratic judgments.
Yoo, who wrote an infamous set of Justice Department memos justifying the harsh treatment of suspected terrorists, is teaching a core fall semester course, Civil Procedure II, which begins next week. Some of the very left-leaning students most inclined to question Yoo's moral fiber and legal reasoning believed they would be obligated to enroll in his class because of scheduling limitations. Yoo skeptics say they would have opted for a second section of the course led by another teacher, but that class conflicted with seminars, such as the Death Penalty Clinic and East Bay Community Law Center, which are popular with aspiring liberal legal activists.
"A lot of students morally disapprove of John Yoo's advocating of torture and human-rights abuses, and they don't want to sanctify that by sitting in a classroom and being taught by him," says Gretchen Gordon, a second-year law student who helped write and circulate a petition last spring asking for an alternative scheduling of the class.
While that petition was still circulating, Boalt Hall administrators gave the disgruntled students what they wanted: a third section of the course that could be taken in the spring. In a statement last week in response to questions from SF Weekly, associate dean Goodwin Liu said the change was made to accommodate student demand for the course. "Student objections to taking the course with Professor Yoo played no part in the decision," he said.
Still, many students suspect the administration's move was a politically convenient cave-in. Others say the petition was misguided from the start. Questions about Yoo, the torture memos, and academic freedom are "very complicated stuff. It's not the case that these issues are black and white," says Patrick Bageant, a student entering his third year at Boalt who says he has enjoyed Yoo's classes but disagrees with the reasoning behind the memos.
Petition aside, Bageant is hardly the only student at Boalt interested in hearing what Yoo has to say. According to Liu, the professor's fall section is currently oversubscribed, with 34 students on the waitlist. Whether or not Yoo is the apostle of evil his critics say he is, there are plenty of up-and-coming lawyers who don't think it's torture sitting through his classes.