BERKELEY - Some 50 protesters, clad in orange jumpsuits and black hoods to emulate the infamous photos of prisoners in Iraq, picketed UC Berkeley's law school graduation ceremony Saturday, demanding that the university fire Professor John Yoo for his authorship of the Bush administration's policies on torture.
"We want to see him fired and disbarred for being a war criminal," said Anne Weills, an Oakland attorney who said she was with the National Lawyers Guild, one of the groups that protested. "Academic freedom stops when you intend to harm or injure somebody."
Yoo, a tenured constitutional law professor at Boalt Hall, took a leave of absence from 2001 to 2003 to work for the U.S. Department of Justice. During that time, he wrote what critics call the "torture memos," which protesters say outlined the legal basis for the use of torture at the Abu Ghraib (Iraq) and Guantanamo Bay (Cuba) military prisons.
Boalt Hall officials said earlier last week that Yoo would not attend Saturday's graduation ceremony.
Graduates and their families and friends generally were supportive of the protest, held outside UC Berkeley's Greek Theatre, but they were also supportive of Yoo's right to teach at the law school.
"He definitely should be prosecuted, but he deserves his day in court like anyone else," said Reem Salahi of Los Angeles, who graduated from the law school Saturday. "Some people think this protest takes away from a celebratory event, but I think it's a good opportunity to raise this issue."
William Upshaw of Oakland, who was at the event to see his wife graduate, was unhappy with the hoopla outside the theater.
"It's interesting, but unexpected," he said as he filed past the protest, carrying a bouquet for his wife, "and, actually, I don't think it's appropriate."
Protesters toted signs and handed out leaflets. Two protesters knelt in a cage meant to resemble a prison cell. Standing guard at the cage was Mary Erwin of Oakland, who was dressed in camouflage fatigues and brandished a cardboard replica of an automatic rifle.
"I'm here because it's a good opportunity to pressure the government on this issue," she said. "It feels good to be out here talking about it. Most people are saying 'thank you.' "
After the ceremony, protesters and graduation attendees exchanged a few barbs as graduates, their friends and family gathered for a reception outside Boalt Hall. Some criticized the noise from a plane that circled the Greek Theatre for part of the ceremony, pulling a banner blasting Yoo.
Yoo is not likely to be fired for his political views, Boalt Dean Christopher Edley Jr., wrote in a memo last month. The memo was posted on the Boalt Hall Web site.
While many of his colleagues and students are disturbed by Yoo's opinions, Yoo is protected by the First Amendment and campus policies on academic freedom, Edley wrote.
"My sense is that the vast majority of legal academics with a view of the matter disagree with substantial portions of Professor Yoo's analyses, including a great many of his colleagues at Berkeley," Edley wrote. "If, however, this strong consensus were enough to fire or sanction someone, then academic freedom would be meaningless."
Yoo and former Attorney General John Ashcroft agreed last week to appear before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties regarding CIA interrogation techniques.
Legal basis for torture
Yoo drafted an August 2002 memo, signed by his boss, former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, providing the legal basis to justify torture in interrogating terrorism suspects. Among other things, Yoo argued that habeas corpus and other legal protections don't apply to CIA detainees because Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are not on U.S. soil.
Yoo's torture memo was later rescinded by the Department of Justice and, in 2004 and 2006, in two lawsuits challenging the legality of the torture policy, the U.S. Supreme Court voided many of Yoo's arguments.
Yoo could not be reached for comment Saturday, but he has defended his positions in several newspaper opinion articles.
"In wartime ... attacking members of the enemy is not considered assassination or murder," he wrote in a Chronicle essay in September 2005. "Killing the enemy is legal in war."
He's also said he's unfazed by protests.
"I'm a conservative professor, so I'm used to people objecting to my views," Yoo said in a 2004 interview with The Chronicle.
© 2008 San Francisco Chronicle