Try as it might, Chapman University can’t get past John Eastman.
The conservative legal scholar abruptly retired 18 months ago from a small private university in Orange County after it appeared in then-President Trump Rally on January 6, inciting the crowd with unproven allegations of election fraud. This came after it caused an uproar on campus over other stands: supports California Proposition 8, which would ban same-sex marriage; claiming that the Vice President Kamala Harris was not eligible for this position because her parents were not US citizens when she was born in Oakland; representing Trump in efforts to challenge the electoral process in four states.
When a US Congressional committee began hearings on the terrorist attack on the Capitol on January 6, there was Eastman again. A former Trump lawyer argued that Vice President Mike Pence could withhold states’ votes or delay certification of the election. And he was repeatedly described in the news as a “former professor at Chapman University.”
“It was a terrible cognitive shock,” said Tom Zellner, a professor of English at Chapman.
Campus shockwaves continue as the actions of a former Chapman law professor become an unresolved case study that has eroded one college’s tolerance for free speech on campus — forcing faculty members to examine the principles of academic freedom to teach, research and write about controversial topics.
Eastman’s emergence as a central figure in the investigation on Jan. 6 prompted Zellner and others — among many Chapman professors who find his views repugnant — to call for an internal investigation into any connection between the academic’s work at the university and his involvement with Trump supporters. Many say the campus community, led by faculty, needs to start a serious debate about the line between protected activities and those that deserve sanctions.
“This was an important event in the history of Chapman University, and we still haven’t come to terms with it or even found the right language to talk about it,” Zoellner said, adding that Eastman “used the flag of our institution to lend credibility to his work with Trump to challenge the election results. “Academic freedom is a sacred value, but our students and faculty also have a right to a full explanation of what went wrong.”
However, the university does not offer any reflection. Asked to discuss academic freedom and any lasting influence the scholar had on Chapman, the university’s vice president sent the following statement: “John Eastman retired in January 2021 and is no longer associated with the university.”
Eastman did not respond to an interview request through the Claremont Institute, a conservative Upland think tank where he currently serves as director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence. During his two decades at Chapman, he primarily taught constitutional and property law.
Even before Eastman became Trump’s attorney, many Chapman officials, faculty and students strongly disagreed with his arguments against Proposition 8 in 2008 and Harris — including at least one conservative academic. As a libertarian who grew up in San Francisco, law professor Denis Binder said he doesn’t “give a damn” about anyone’s sexual orientation. He disagreed with the arguments of Eastman v. Harris – according to him, the constitutional right to citizenship of almost everyone born on the territory of the United States is well established.
In response to Eastman’s August 2020 article on Harris, more than one-third of Chapman’s 542 full-time faculty signed the petition denouncing it as “poorly argued, inaccurate and racist”. They did not seek to stifle free speech, but urged the campus administration to show its support for the values of diversity and inclusion.
After Eastman became Trump’s lawyer, supporting a Texas lawsuit challenging the election process in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin — using his Chapman email, phone number and campus address — the faculty issued another statement of outrage.
Again, they refrained from calling for his ouster, although the faculty head successfully petitioned the university to bar Eastman from using his Chapman affiliation in his work to benefit Trump.
“Freedom of speech is not absolute blanche.”
— Lisa Leitz, Chair of Chapman’s Department of Peace Studies
Eastman’s appearance at a Jan. 6 rally alongside Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani — just as an armed mob was heading toward the Capitol to launch a violent attack aimed at preventing Congress from ratifying the election results — finally put many educators over the top. More than 140 faculty and three trustees later signed the letter calling for action against Eastman.
The letter stated that Eastman’s actions “… take matters into another realm. They should strip him of his right to teach law to Chapman students and strip him of the honor of leading the department.”
Before the faculty senate could vote on a resolution recognizing the right to due process but urging the university to explore sanctions, Eastman resigned under contract with Chapman. Both sides agreed not to sue each other, although Eastman argued at the time that the letter was “defamatory” and that his claims of election fraud were valid. He also said it was an attempt to take away his rights to free speech.
The furore has highlighted conflicting views on academic freedom, which remain largely undefined.
“It’s hard to know what really crosses the line,” said one law professor. “People want to say there’s this objective standard, but I haven’t seen one that works.”
For Lisa Leitz, chair of Chapman’s Department of World Studies and lead author of the faculty letter, academic integrity is a bright line for her when evaluating suitability for a university position.
Violations related to academic and research work are criminal offenses. Freedom of speech is not absolute freedom,” she said.
Binder disagreed with Eastman’s argument that the vice president could reject state-certified Electoral College votes, saying they are appropriate for contentious classroom litigation but “should not be taken seriously.” However, he maintained that Eastman had done nothing wrong in pushing them and said he opposed any move to remove him. According to him, Eastman only engaged in political speech protected by academic freedom in the classroom and beyond.
“He was just polling the voting machines. He did not take part in [riot]. He didn’t tell people to go there,” Binder said, adding that his support for Eastman was about his comments at the rally.
American foundation The Association of University Professors, which advocates for academic freedom and shared governance between faculty and campus leaders, sees things somewhat differently, said Hank Reichman, a longtime leader of the association and a professor emeritus of history at Cal State East Bay.
One key difference, Reichman said, is whether faculty members are open about their area of expertise. This concerns the question of their fitness to teach and research – and whether universities will defend them when they are attacked.
At Northwestern University, for example, Associate Professor caused controversy for a long time for his claims that the Holocaust is a hoax. But just because Arthur R. Butz teaches electrical engineering hasn’t shown him to be unfit for the job, Reichman said. The university offers course options with other instructors for students who don’t want to deal with Butz, Reichman said.
But the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey School of Law began the review in January about Amy Wax, a law professor who has filed multiple complaints about “pervasive and recurring vitriol and white supremacist advocacy.” Her views allegedly made it “impossible” for students to attend her classes without fear of discrimination, Law School Dean Theodore W. Ruger said in announcing the review.
At the time of the January 6 uprising, Eastman was serving as a visiting professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, which subsequently relieved him of some duties. Colorado Conference of the American Assn. University professors called for the sanction to be lifted immediately, saying the scientist was denied due process. Conference participants said it was “disturbing” that so many professors supported his ouster without a hearing, and noted that a long history of political suppression of academic views has hit left-wing professors the hardest. Eastman left Colorado in May 2021 after the university declined to renew his contract.
At Chapman, faculty members learned last fall that the university would not defend them against defamation lawsuits or other legal challenges in all cases. Legal counsel told them the university would cover them if they spoke out within their expertise as Chapman scholars, but not for unrelated conduct or speech, said Frank Frisch, a professor of applied human physiology who at the time served as vice president of the faculty senate. . The news was “sobering”, he said, fueling uncertainty about how to make the distinction.
Santa Ana last month a federal judge ordered Eastman to turn over 159 emails from his Chapman account to the House Select Committee on January 6. The ruling raised new questions among faculty about the privacy of their university communications, Frisch said.
“It always comes back to the John Eastman thing,” he said.
Some teachers started a student chapter of the American Assn. university professors to spark wider discussions. But Zoellner said more is needed — perhaps a campus-wide task force to investigate the many questions about “how this university’s name was dragged into the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
Diane Kemker, who was an adjunct law professor at Chapman at the time of the furore, agreed. She said Chapman missed an opportunity to address those topics at the time, but still could have done so in a process that must be led by faculty.
“They have the power to do more, and I want them to use it,” she said.