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Protesters gathered on sidewalks in front of the St. Thomas School of Law Thursday afternoon to voice their disapproval of panel discussion participants who they say condone torture.
The two discussion participants, St. Thomas law professor Robert Delahunty and co-author John Yoo, wrote memos to the U.S. Department of Defense during the Bush administration about the limits of presidential powers and the Geneva Convention. The protesters say these memos paved the way for the torture of foreign prisoners in U.S. prisons.
Coleen Rowley, a former FBI agent and onetime Minnesota congressional candidate, was participating in the protest. She said there is no legal basis for torture and it should never be used under any circumstance.
“These professors here made all kinds of legal loopholes to allow torture,” Rowley said. “But torture is the worst method to use unless you want somebody to clam up and not tell the truth.”
She said she doesn’t necessarily want Delahunty to be fired, but she thinks the matter needs to be brought more into the open.
“I would love an investigation into what he did,” she said. “There needs to be a real debate.”
The protesters claim the memos Delahunty and Yoo wrote to the Department of Defense rationalized torture by saying the U.S. didn’t need to follow certain articles in the Geneva Convention, and by giving the president the power to override parts of the convention.
“I’m here today for the First Amendment,” protester Susan Jeffrey said. “Torture doesn’t just stop at a foreign border. It’s part of the American prison system and it doesn’t work.”
She said most of the law students walking by didn’t stop, but they seemed to be “ashamed of what their country is doing.”
“They walk by with shoulders hunched, heads down and they scurry away,” she said. “That’s good because people should be ashamed of promoting torture in America. It astonishes me that St. Thomas is teaching children that torture is OK.”
St. Thomas’ position
University spokesperson Chato Hazelbaker, graduate marketing director, said the debate isn’t about Delahunty as a professor or about torture.
“What we have is a robust debate about presidential powers,” Hazelbaker said. “Professor Yoo is the primary target. He was invited here by a student group. It’s a legal disagreement, actually.”
He said the protesters claim Delahunty did something illegal, but Hazelbaker said Delahunty was doing his job as a lawyer.
“He provided advice to a client, and it’s essentially still advice the Obama administration uses, so we disagree [with the protesters] over what he did,” Hazelbaker said.
He said the protesters show up about every six weeks, but the group was larger Thursday because Yoo had been invited to St. Thomas as well. Hazelbaker said he hasn’t heard reactions from law students regarding the protests.
“We really don’t hear much from students about this,” he said. “They started to look at more substantive issues and this dropped off their radar.”
Reactions to protest
Most law students walked past the protesters without stopping to look at the signs or take the material the protesters were handing out. When asked, students said they either didn’t know about the issue or didn’t have an opinion. One student, Robin Prochazka, said she didn’t really know about the issue, but wanted to look into it after seeing the protesters.
“I’m kind of happy there’s activism on campus,” Prochazka said. “I don’t see it as a threatening thing. Of course, I don’t believe in torture or war crimes. This will be an opportunity to find out more.”
Some passerby honked car horns at the protesters and some shouted out their agreement with the signs. Some people in other cars voiced their disagreement with the protesters. A few students driving by yelled, “Delahunty is my professor,” and “Delahunty!” in what appeared to be support for the professor.
Katie Broadwell can be reached at email@example.com.