Dean of Yale Law School

Today we continued our production travels on the road with a trip to Yale Law School , where we interviewed the Dean of Yale Law School, HAROLD HONGJU KOH, a champion of human and civil rights. I first met Dean Koh at Yale Law School’s admit day this spring, and after hearing him speak, I was certain of two things: that I wanted to study at YLS next year and that this documentary film needed his voice. He offered a larger perspective on the shift in law and politics in post-9/11 America.

Dean Koh described three different reactions after September 11. The first was anger and grief as someone with friends who were killed in the Twin Towers. The second was concern as a human rights lawyer: “I knew that in times of terrorism, or claimed terrorism, that human rights tend to be suppressed. It happens in Uzbekistan, in Indonesia, in Russia. Behind a veil of terrorism or anti-terrorist activities, governments engage in repressive human rights activities.

His third reaction was as a child of immigrants. “I remembered that the Japanese internment took place against American citizens and that the people who condoned it were people like Earl Warren and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These are great Americans who nevertheless in this time of war adopted human rights violations as measures that were largely supported by the American people and the US Supreme Court.

These reactions made Dean Koh worry about law in post-9/11 America. “When we’re at war, people forget about law. But the structure of law was created precisely so that we would have other tools to turn to in a time of crisis, not just war.”

Dean Koh identified three new problems: the use of sweeping executive powers without checks and balances, the power of government to spy on its citizens, and the creation of pockets of the world now deemed outside the scope of human rights.

“To be honest, our system was working pretty well. We didn’t need radical solutions. The laws that were in place were working to combat anti-terrorist activities. There was no reason to go outside criminal law.”

In response to racial profiling, he answered, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all people have certain inalienable rights, including life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And its not up to some people to give up other people rights. Everyone has to give up their rights themselves. If people don’t want to give up their rights, it doesn’t matter that a legislator tries to demand that they do. That’s the magic of our constitutional system. There are more enduring principles, than just the latest crisis. In every generation, there’s going to be some crisis.

“I remember that as a young boy I used to come into the airport with my father from Asia. He was not a US citizen; he was a permanent resident. Since I was a citizen, we would go into different lines. Sometimes it would take hours before he would get out of his line. And my brother and I would be waiting on the other side. This is the image of families split up because of suspicion brought upon a group of people… I have many former friends at the state department who told me that suddenly after 9/11, their job was keeping people out of America who were exactly like themselves one generation earlier.

“I think we need to consider a very basic notion: you cannot kill all the terrorists. You have to plant the ideas and principles that are going to defeat the ideas of terrorism in the marketplace of ideas. That means America has to stand up for its best principles and not stoop to the level of the terrorists. What that means in this environment is that the US has to preach the values of democracy and human rights and practice them. “

My final question to Dean Koh: what makes him hopeful?

“While I’m the dean of a law school, I’m also an Asian American. There was a time when there was a yellow peril. Asians were inherently suspect and now it turns out that Asians can be loyal American citizens. They can be deans of leading law schools. I think it’s not a bad idea for people who were in that situation fifty years earlier to say, Let’s stop.”

Stay tuned for the conversation we had next with Yale Law Professor KENJI YOSHINO. In the mean time, we welcome support for our film project.