The Yale Law School Email Controversy: An Interview With Trent Colbert

Colbert is 'cautiously optimistic' that the climate at YLS might improve in the wake of this conflict.

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Last Thursday, I wrote about the latest controversy at Yale Law School. It all started with an email that second-year law student Trent Colbert sent out on September 15, inviting members of the Native American Law Students Association (he’s part-Cherokee) to a party for Constitution Day, which NALSA was cohosting with the conservative/libertarian Federalist Society:

Sup NALSA, Hope you’re all still feeling social! This Friday at 7:30, we will be christening our very own (soon to be) world-renowned NALSA Trap House… by throwing a Constitution Day bash in collaboration with FedSoc. Planned attractions include Popeye’s chicken, basic-bitch-American-themed snacks (like apple pie, etc.)… Hope to see you all there.

Other YLS students immediately condemned the email as racist and triggering, citing the reference to a “trap house”—a term that, according to Urban Dictionary, was “originally used to describe a crack house in a shady neighborhood”—along with the serving of fried chicken, a trope used in racist stereotyping of Black Americans. These students also cited the involvement of the Federalist Society, which according to one student “has historically supported anti-Black rhetoric” and, as such, was triggering as well.

Things heated up from there, with classmates filing nine complaints of discrimination and harassment against Colbert. Over the next few weeks, he was called into multiple meetings with two Yale administrators, associate dean Ellen Cosgrove and diversity director Yaseen Eldik, who pressured him to apologize. (For a more detailed account of all the developments, please see my post from last Thursday.)

After Aaron Sibarium of the Washington Free Beacon broke the story last Wednesday, it got picked up by other outlets, including FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), the Washington Post (Ruth Marcus), and CNN (Michael Smerconish). Much of this coverage defended Trent Colbert and criticized the YLS administration for its handling of the situation.

I’ve been covering the controversy extensively, here at Original Jurisdiction and in real time on my Twitter feed. I’ve heard from multiple YLS students about the situation. This statement from one 2L is representative of others:

I don't know Trent that well besides stray, benign interactions in class, but I know people who do. Their read on the situation is that Trent is the kind of guy who often cracks irreverent jokes and pushes "meme-y" content, consistent with what you've seen in that email, but that he has never, ever wished anyone ill will or harbored racist intent. He is (or at least was) a genuinely well-liked person on campus. You can see that by his election to the 2L representative position last spring that they're now trying to remove him from.

Then I spoke yesterday, for about an hour and a half, with Trent Colbert himself, as well as a friend of his at YLS who wanted to share some thoughts. I wanted to speak with Trent in order to get his firsthand, unfiltered account of these tumultuous past few weeks. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, Colbert pronounces his last name like television personality Stephen Colbert; the “t” at the end is silent.)

Trent Colbert (hereinafter “TC”) and his friend (“TF”=”Trent’s Friend”) provided me with additional information and insight about the situation, which I distilled down into this Q&A. I thank them for taking the time to speak with me.1

DL: Let’s start with the email. There are a fair number of people, at YLS and beyond, who believe that you were intentionally trying to provoke when you sent out an invite to come to your “trap house” and eat fried chicken.

Did you really have no idea that “trap house” might be a racially charged term or have racial connotations?

TC: I was never aware of the word “trap house” having any racial connotations. I thought of a “trap house” as like a frat house, just without the frat.

I had been calling our house the “NALSA trap house” for months before this incident. I had been calling it that in messages with other NALSA board members for months, and nobody had said anything to me about it. I even have chats with other NALSA members “liking” messages from me that used the term “trap house.”

TF: Here’s something you should understand about Trent. He’s younger than me, straight through from college to law school, a Gen Z kid who’s really into social media, memes, slang. “Trap house” is a pretty common term for “party house” in that world. 

He would have called it the “trap house” no matter what food was going to be there, whether it was bagels, burgers, or Chipotle. The term had nothing to do with the Popeye’s chicken, which wasn’t his decision to serve. As he said earlier, he’s been calling it the “trap house” for months.

If you looked up “trap house” on the internet on September 15, you wouldn’t have come across anything telling you it’s a racist term.2 You might have run into the Urban Dictionary definition, which would tell you that it means exactly what Trent says. You might have run into the left-wing Chapo Trap House podcast (positively discussed in the New York Times and elsewhere without any mention of racism), although that was too millennial for Trent to be aware of. But you would have had no way of knowing that people would be offended by this. Maybe it’s a juvenile term, but it’s not a racial slur.

DL: And what about this reference to “basic bitch” foods in the invite?

TC: The theme of our party was Constitution Day. I was trying to say we’d be serving classic American foods, quintessentially American foods—sort of caricaturing ourselves as Americans on Constitution Day, this very American day. And I have a very casual tone when I write emails. So that’s why I referred to “basic-bitch-American-themed snacks.”

DL: After you got criticized for this message on GroupMe [the group messaging app used by the 2L class to communicate], did any of your classmates come to your defense?

TC: Not really, at least not publicly. About a week after the main GroupMe discussion ended, one person did post a link to the “New Puritans” article from The Atlantic, which everyone ignored.

But I’ve received many private messages of support—“I don’t get this,” “Sorry you have to be dealing with this,” “Stay strong.” I think there’s a silent majority that supports me. But nobody wants to be the next person targeted on GroupMe.

TF: Once the attacks on Trent were in the GroupMe, everyone felt they had to go along. There’s a very “emperor’s new clothes” vibe—when someone says something is offensive, everyone else has to play along. In some cases, there’s actually something to seize on. In this case, I can’t emphasize enough how out of the blue it all was.

DL: Have any of the offended students reached out to you individually to have one-on-one conversations about the email? Did any of them reach out to you before filing their complaints of discrimination and harassment?

TC: Nobody reached out to me before filing their complaints. My first meeting with the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) was less than 24 hours after my email went out.

I received one message two days after my original invitation was reposted into the class GroupMe. By that point, I had already been reported by at least nine students to the OSA, and I had already had two meetings with administrators from that office.

I didn’t understand this message as an invitation to dialogue. The student told me they didn't like my response attempting to clear the air in the class GroupMe,3 said that they would no longer be extending me the benefit of the doubt, and reiterated the demand for an apology. I didn’t respond because the message didn’t include any questions and, as I interpreted it, didn’t indicate any desire for further conversation. One public GroupMe message had criticized me for inviting people to talk in private as that would force students of color to “do the labor” of reaching out as individuals. Yaseen Eldik made the same criticism in one of our meetings shortly thereafter. I took the private message to be of a piece with those.

I will add that, later on, the student did reach out again, expressing interest in talking with me, and we had a nice 40-minute chat the next day.4

DL: Over the past few weeks, since you sent that message on September 15, you’ve been publicly castigated by your classmates on GroupMe. You’ve been dragged into multiple meetings with law school administrators. You’ve faced this intense pressure to apologize. How has it been for you?

TC: Incredibly stressful. I’ve been having all these meetings with the Office of Student Affairs. I’ve been doing all this research, into everything from Yale’s policies on discrimination and harassment to Connecticut’s laws about recording conversations.5 I was worried about what OSA might say in its written report about this incident, or what the law school might say to the bar when I apply. I’ve had a lot of late nights. I had a paper due in the middle of this period that I had to push off because of everything that has been going on.

DL: At first you remained anonymous, which is how you were featured in the Washington Free Beacon article. Why did you decide to go public, agreeing to be named in the FIRE article?

TC: At first I wasn’t sure how people would respond to everything. I didn’t want negative articles to be the first thing that would come up when someone Googles my name. So I started off staying anonymous.

TF: A number of us had encouraged Trent to stay anonymous for the reasons he just mentioned. As his friends, we were nervous, and we wanted to protect him. But Trent had actually been leaning towards having his name out there from the beginning.

TC: Then when FIRE got in touch with me, they said they wanted to interview me independently and write about my case, to add more to the story that wasn’t in the Free Beacon’s report. But their policy is not to anonymize students. So after weighing the pros and cons, and trusting FIRE, whose work I admire, I agreed to be named.

DL: As we learned on Friday, there’s now a push to get you removed as a student representative. What’s the status of that?

TC: The student reps had an emergency meeting on Friday. Right now we don’t have a constitution. There was supposed to be a vote of the student body to approve one in March 2020, but then everybody got sent home because of the pandemic, and the vote never happened.

At this past Friday’s meeting, the student reps provisionally approved an impeachment provision for the constitution. It requires three student reps to submit articles of impeachment against the rep they want to impeach. I’m not aware of any articles of impeachment against me right now.

DL: As you know, there has been a lot of support for you outside of YLS. Do you think this could be the start of an improvement in the climate at the law school?

TC: We’ll see. I’m cautiously optimistic.

TF: This story goes beyond Trent. The administration mishandled his situation badly. Students shouldn’t be treated the way that he was treated. But more broadly, what we’ve heard in these recordings should give people in the legal profession—and beyond—reason to be concerned.

We heard administrators say that membership in FedSoc is an aggravating factor when you’re accused of offensive conduct. It’s ideological discrimination, in an environment that’s already challenging for conservatives, a school where we have no conservative public-law scholars on the faculty.

We heard administrators say that a similarly situated white student would have faced even more pressure than Trent did. That’s a frank admission of something that cuts against what we are supposed to believe about equal treatment under the law.

There have been a lot of situations at YLS recently where people individually decide that it’s more convenient to just give in to the peer pressure. So I really admire Trent’s courage and willingness to say, “Maybe this will be painful for me, but the potential effect on the whole climate in our society could be far worse than what I’m going to endure—so someone needs to stand up, and that someone is me.”

UPDATE (8:32 p.m.): The opening to this post was corrected to reflect the fact that the invitation in question went only to members of NALSA. Members of the Federalist Society received a different invitation (see also footnote 3 below).

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1

As I’ve stated on Twitter, I’d love to hear from any and all YLS students with views to share on this controversy, on all sides. I specifically reached out to the president of Yale BLSA, the first student to publicly criticize the email, but I have not heard back from her.

2

If you look up the term “trap house” today, you won’t find anything, at least on the first few pages of Google results, indicating that it’s a racially charged term (setting aside articles about the current controversy at YLS). For comparison, run a Google search for your racial epithet of choice; the results will make it obvious that the term is racist.

3

On September 17, Colbert went on GroupMe to explain that "there was never a Trap House theme" for the party, which was about Constitution Day. He included a copy of the party invitation that he sent to the FedSoc list, which was more formal than the NALSA invite and made no reference to any “trap house.” He also said he’d welcome the opportunity to speak one-on-one with anyone who was offended by his original NALSA email.

4

I have received secondhand reports, from Professor Monica Bell and from one current YLS student, that some students tried to reach out to Colbert, but I haven’t seen any confirmation of those efforts at contact. Colbert made available for my review many of the emails and GroupMe messages at issue here, and I didn’t see any in which a fellow student expressed an interest in a one-on-one conversation with Colbert. I also didn’t see any in which a student expressed an interest in dialogue with Colbert prior to filing a complaint with the law school. (Recall that nine complaints were lodged within less than 24 hours of Colbert’s original email.)

In my earlier post, I suggested that law students with complaints about allegedly offensive speech by a classmate should generally be required to try and talk things out with the alleged offender before filing complaints with the administration (subject to exceptions for extreme situations like harassment and threats). I compared it to the “meet and confer” requirement that some courts have when it comes to discovery disputes.

5

As folks who have been following the story know, Colbert recorded some of his conversations with Eldik and Cosgrove. Connecticut law allows the recording of in-person conversations without the consent of all parties. For telephone conversations, however, Connecticut requires the consent of all parties.