After interviewing Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life America as part of a satirical video about anti-abortion activism, a team of Yale filmmakers has been hit with two cease-and-desist notices.
Courtesy of Maya Weldon
On October 14, 2022, Zoe Larkin ’24 and Ella Attell ’24 sat down with Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life America, for an interview.
The next day, Larkin and Attell received a cease and desist order from Hawkins’ attorney, Zac Kester.
Students for Life America organization claims its mission as “to recruit, train and mobilize the pro-life generation to abolish abortion.”
The interview footage was intended to serve as part of a Borat-esque spoof video about campus conservatism titled “Conservative Women for Conservative Values Presents: Operation Save Yale Now, Our Movie,” which Larkin and Attell had been working on since the summer . The cease-and-desist ordered them to delete the footage of Hawkins, alleging that the students acted illegally by feeding her under false premises and infringing on copyrighted SFLA material.
“We didn’t expect it to be as much of a free speech issue as it was,” Attell explained. “We didn’t think we might get sued, but the intent was certainly to capitalize on the fact that conservatives are really excited to hear that a group on campus is supporting them because they feel victimized, they think through, like, the liberal culture on elite campuses.”
In the film, Larkin and Attell, posing as disillusioned pro-livers Reagan Smith and Bertha Childs, invited Hawkins on a podcast they had set up. The two knew Hawkins would be at Yale because she announced online that she would speak at Saint Thomas Moore in New Haven.
During the interview, they presented her with an award for “Conservative VIP of the Year”, a papier-mâché and PVC flower cheerfully painted in pastel pinks and oranges, and regaled her with their business concept: a clothing line aimed at tween mothers – “Do you think it has legs?” Larkin asks in the video; Hawkins replies, “Online, for sure.”
The tactic used by Kester is known as “prior restraint” – aiming to get rid of inflammatory material before it ever reaches the public through a preemptive cease-and-desist. Prior restraint is severely limited by the First Amendment to material that is extraordinarily defamatory or harmful, as it is a form of censorship.
“The tone of the letters is very, very aggressive,” Larkin explained. “It was very clear that they wanted to intimidate us into deleting everything.”
The pair sought legal counsel from David Schoen, whose complex career record includes a long stint as a civil rights lawyer and a shorter one as a lawyer representing Donald Trump during his second Senate impeachment trial. Schoen, the father of a friend, became interested in the case because it grappled with the issues of free speech and artistic expression.
The students also reached out to Dean Pericles Lewis, who, among other Yale administration members, was contacted by SFLA following the interview. Lewis responded by email saying he would inform them if further action was necessary and did not request that they avoid posting the video.
Lewis declined to comment to the News on the matter.
On Oct. 27, a second cease-and-desist order came in, partly doubling down and partly answering the complaints Schoen raised in response to the initial order.
Schoen alleged that SFLA employees engaged in anti-Semitic behavior toward video director Leo Egger ’24 by telling him that being Jewish was “halfway there” in relation to Christianity. Kester responded by calling the students themselves anti-Semitic for satirizing a common anti-abortion trope in which activists compare abortions to the Holocaust.
“[I]”It is not anti-Semitic to discuss the differences between religious views and to try to convince others that one religion is more persuasive than another,” Kester wrote in the second order.
As Jewish students themselves, Attell and Larkin were concerned about the vitriol they were receiving and even feared for their physical safety.
When Hawkins went on Instagram Live amid the drama of calling the two “weird”, commenters responded “Wow. The devil is a sneaky one” and “ask your guardian angel to protect you from evil” in reference to the students.
Larkin told the News she believed Kester had imposed “illegal and illegal deadlines” for handing over their footage in an attempt to further intimidate the students, assuming they would not have the legal knowledge to verify the validity of the requests.
Attell and Larkin further added that Hawkins’ legal team found Attell’s LinkedIn and threatened to contact her former internship employers, which Attell viewed as an intimidation technique aimed at scaring them into submission.
The two viewed the cease-and-desist as an attack on their own rights to free speech.
“It’s also hypocritical, because [SFLA] sued universities on … the grounds of free speech infringement for not allowing a chapter,” Larkin said.
Attell and Larkin also argue that they gave Hawkins plenty of opportunities to push back on their rhetoric, often bordering on the absurd. At moments in the interview, the two said, Hawkins expressed hesitation about the views expressed by Attell and Larkin’s persons.
“We were not trying to humiliate her in any way,” Attell added. “We tried to take the pro-life agenda and bring it to a point that revealed its own absurdity … it had little to do with her and much more to do with the philosophy.”
In an email to the News, Kristi Hamrick, chief media and policy strategist for SFLA, called Larkin and Attell “deceptive and dishonest about themselves and the product they wanted to make.”
Hamrick alleged that Larkin and Attell had “unlawfully” used the logos of both SFLA and Yale—”two prestigious organizations”—prompting SFLA to send a “strike [sic] letter” asking for the removal of the logo and that the video of Hawkins not be used.
“Satire is an art form that not everyone can master, and in this video we don’t see success with the genre,” Hamrick wrote. “However, as these women’s careers unfold, this article and other media hits will be available to warn other potential victims of their attempts at humor.”
The video was posted on Youtube on Nov. 5, 2022.