Patrick Finney

During a 2005 debate, former Bush legal adviser John Yoo was asked: “If the president deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, is there a law that can stop him?” 

Yoo’s answer: “No treaty,” and depending on the president’s belief at the time, no law.

It is similar legal opinions that have made John Yoo one of the most vilified lawyers in America. Yoo’s resumé from his tenure in the White House Office of Legal Counsel reads like a list of bullet points of the most widely criticized policies of Bush’s presidency. It was Yoo who provided the legal backbone to strip enemy combatants of Geneva Convention protections. It was Yoo who validated Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program. It was Yoo who argued that the president was not subject to the War Crimes Act. And most notably, it was Yoo who authored a slew of memos deeming waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques legal.

For his actions, Yoo has been pilloried by the left as a sadistic tyrant who eviscerated the Constitution. The U.S. Justice Department has recommended his disbarment. He has been sued by the mother of U.S. detainee Jose Padilla, and officials in both Spain and Germany have brought war crimes charges against him.

For these reasons, one might think Yoo’s prospects for future employment were dim. However, his past didn’t stop the Philadelphia Inquirer — Yoo’s hometown newspaper — from hiring the controversial lawyer to write a monthly column. Yoo’s writings, published under the headline “Closing Arguments,” are primarily about law. His most recent column argued against President Obama’s assertion that he will appoint a new Supreme Court justice who uses empathy in the courtroom.

Before serving in the Bush administration, Yoo served as a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His vast legal scholarship focused on U.S. foreign relations, international law and the Constitution’s separation of powers. He also wrote two books on foreign affairs and the War on Terror. Yoo even had a short stint as journalist; he spent a summer interning at The Wall Street Journal between college and law school. But for Will Bunch, a writer for The Philadelphia Daily News, Yoo’s credentials don’t make the cut for columnist material. In a scathing Monday blog post, Bunch harshly criticized the decision to hire Yoo. “As an American citizen, I am still reeling from the knowledge that our government tortured people in my name,” Bunch said. “As a journalist, the fact that my byline and John Yoo’s are now rolling off the same printing press is adding insult to injury.”

As a journalist and an American citizen, I couldn’t disagree more. The Philadelphia Inquirer has voiced an editorial opinion against harsh interrogation techniques; the fact that it would hire a law scholar who holds the opposite viewpoint is a testament to its commitment to promoting a marketplace of ideas. Too often, newspapers abandon rigorous discourse on the opinion page for an echo chamber of rants. Harold Jackson, the opinion editor of the Inquirer, said the paper has been adding more conservative columnists to provide ideological balance. “It means we aren’t afraid to let people hear what the other side has to say,” Jackson said. “We think most of our readers aren’t afraid, either.”

I wish Jackson was correct, but unfortunately many Americans don’t want discourse that challenges their belief structure. They’d rather write Yoo off as a sadistic yahoo and argue for his removal from the Inquirer than actually hear the basis for his political philosophy. 

Bunch argues that the inclusion of Yoo in the Inquirer’s editorial page is another example of what he calls “on one hand, on the other hand journalism,” a practice in which newspapers provide equal time and authority to ideas regardless of their merits. This observation makes the grossly inaccurate assumption that Bunch or the staff of the Inquirer are qualified to pass judgment on the complexity of Yoo’s legal memos — they aren’t. However, Yoo is eminently qualified to provide a conservative interpretation of executive power and international law. 

To suggest that editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer should make a moral judgment about a legal issue and accordingly exclude Yoo’s voice for the paper is absurd. And to drape what is clearly an attempt in political censorship under the guise of patriotism is not onlydisingenuous, but a complete bastardization of what a free press is intended to provide. Let me make this crystal clear: I don’t agree with what John Yoo has to say, but I find his opinions nowhere near as detestable as those who seek to muzzle him because he doesn’t fulfill their standard of appropriate speech. To remove Yoo would sully the history of debate that has made newspapers such a vibrant and important part of American culture. As someone who believes in the promise of journalism, I simply cannot tolerate that.

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