On his blog Lott has a sequence of postings telling a story of how
the University of Chicago Federalist Society tried to organize a
debate between himself and John Donohue, but Donohue kept backing out.
What really happened bears little relation to the story Lott tells. In
fact, Lott’s account is so misleading that the Federalist Society
cancelled a talk by Lott because he refused to correct his postings.
was on 30 Nov 2004:
Disappointingly, John Donohue has at the last minute withdrawn from
our scheduled debate on Thursday (see note for 11/29 below). I will
still give a talk, though I will instead discuss the changing judicial
confirmation process. …
No one apparently understands why Donohue really backed out of the
debate just a couple of days before the event. The debate had been
set up months in advance.
No one understands why he backed out? I came up with a clever scheme
for solving the mystery—I asked him. It turns out that the debate
was originally scheduled for Nov 18, but at the beginning of
September, Lott cancelled this date. The organizer asked Donohue if he
could make it on Dec 2, and Donohue said that he could. However, the
organizer did not get around to confirming the date until 29 Nov 2004
with this email:
I’m sorry that this message is coming so late – I had meant to
e-mail you last week, but then found myself in central Florida
without internet access for most of Thanksgiving break.
In any case, I’m writing to check that you still plan to come on
Thursday to debate John Lott on the topic, “Do more guns mean less
If so, as soon as you forward me your plane reservations, I can
submit them to clear reimbursement …
In any case, let me say again that I am sorry for not getting in
touch earlier, I hope that you can still make it out here to
Chicago, and I am really looking forward to this event.
Unfortunately, since he had not heard back from the organizer, Donohue
had assumed that that date had fallen through and made other
arrangements for that date. It is odd that Lott stated that no one
knew the reason why the debate was cancelled when Lott could easily
have found out by asking the organizer.
on the debate was on April 7 2005:
It seems like we have been through this before. In December, John
Donohue cancelled our debate that was scheduled at the University of
Chicago for December 2 on November 30th. After what had happened in
the Fall, I double checked to make sure everything was confirmed
before I turned down another talk that I had the chance to give, and I
was assured that the event was set and that I should get my plane
ticket. This time our debate that was scheduled at the University of
Chicago on April 13th and cancelled with just six days to go.
Actually there was no debate ever scheduled for April 13. Donohue was
asked if he could come on the 13th, but he had other commitments. This
email from the organizer to Donohue on 8 Apr 2005 explains:
I’m sorry about this, but I’ve made an outright hash of
things. When I suggested April 13 to him, I believe that
Dr. Lott took it to mean that the debate was on for the
13th. As a result, he bought a ticket to come out here
since prices were set to rise the next day after midnight.
Pursuant to your previous letter, you are obviously, and
understandably, not going to be here. I wrote him a letter
explaining what had happened and taking full responsibility
(so that he would not believe that you had backed out–my
responsibility here is obvious, but I wanted to make it very
clear that I, not you, am entirely to blame).
Now, when he wrote his April 7 posting may have honestly misunderstand
the situation and believed that the debate had been confirmed for
April 13, but the next day it was made clear to him that the posting
was inaccurate. To this day, Lott has not corrected it.
Email from the Federalist Society to John Donohue 11 Apr 2005:
Here is a copy of the letter that I sent Dr. Lott explaining
what had happened. As I had explained before, I ended up
writing you I guess after he had made his reservations. I’m
sorry that he is slamming you on his website, but,
unfortunately, there is not much that I can do about that.
I’m really really sorry that that I created such confusion
and I’m sorry to be in the middle of all this, but I wanted
to show that I did not pawn it off on you. …
P.S. Maybe Dr. Lott put up his posting on his website
swiftly and will alter it now that he knows it was me who
Email from the Federalist Society to John Lott 8 Apr 2005:
I cannot blame this on Professor Donohue. Nor did he offer
April 21, it was another date that I was checking into
because it came to my mind and when he said that he could
not do the 13th, I suggested the 21st so that I might have
something to come back to you with instead of simply
saying, “it’s off.” The suggestion originated from me, not
If there is anyone you should blame for jerking you around,
it is me. I had been keeping in loose touch with Professor
Donohue via Professor Harcourt and believed, incorrectly,
that the 13th was a day that he had mentioned would be
available to Donohue. This was wrong, and the
misunderstanding was mine, I was not deliberately misled. I
contacted Donohue after you had set up the 13th and then
found out that in fact it wouldn’t work (He had classes on
Wednesdays, I had thought it was Thursdays, but the 14th
doesn’t work because he is scheduled to be elsewhere).
If you would still like to do the debate, please send me any
series of dates that might work and I will see if we can get
this set up. If you would no longer like to debate or to
deal with me again, I understand that as well. But I must
emphasize that the failure here was the result of my own
incompetence and cannot be attributed to evasion on the part
My phone number is (xxx) xxx-xxxx. If you would like to
call me to talk about rescheduling or to complain about my
miserable screw up here, I will be happy to talk. I am
extraordinarily sorry that you cancelled another event to do
this, and I would never ask you to cancel or reschedule
another. We will cover all expenses in any case, but I am
sorry that that is all that I can offer to do. I cannot
arrange a debate with Professor Levitt in so short a time,
particularly in light of the fact that he came across the
midway to talk here for ACS last week. As I have said, but
cannot say enough, I am sorry. You will get a formal
apology in the mail, but as the situation stands now, that
and an offer to reschedule is all that I can provide.
Again, thank you very much for your patience, I hope that
your talk in Utah goes really well, and I hope that this can
be resolved eventually, but I certainly understand your
displeasure with the state of affairs and I take
responsibility for creating it.
on the debate was on May 7. This time he didn’t just refuse to
correct a false statement—he claimed that Donohue had withdrawn from the previous debates even though he knew that was not true:
The University of Chicago Federalist Society has tried for a third
time to set up a debate between myself and John Donohue. Since the
last two debates on the issue of guns at the University of Chicago
were cancelled at the last moment with Donohue withdrawing from one
debate with just 2 days to go, I thought that we might have more luck
scheduling a debate on another topic that is getting a lot of
attention these days: abortion and crime. Donohue and Steve Levitt
were the coauthors on a paper that got a lot of attention on this
issue and Levitt as also recently coauthored a book with Steve Dubner
that again goes over the issue. All three were asked to pick a time to
debate the issue, but even though Donohue is free on [May] 25th and
despite all the attention currently being given to the abortion
research, none of them were willing to debate their work on abortion
with me. (I think that I know why.) I will still be presenting on the
25th with the hope that Donohue will change his mind and defend his
As you might have guessed, Lott is being misleading about the third
attempt to set up a debate. After the Federalist Society had finally
found a date when both Lott and Donohue could attend, Lott decided to
unilaterally change the topic from guns to abortion. Donohue saw this
as an attempt to avoid debating him about guns and refused to agree to
a change of topic. The organizer was forced to abandon the idea of a
debate and just have a talk from Lott on May 25. He wrote to Donohue
on 6 May 2005 to apologize:
I sympathize with your position and I understand your frustration
here. I think you’ve been pretty classy about this all year, and I’m
really sorry that at the end of it all, it did not work out. I’m
sorry to have exposed you for all of this with the website and
all–there’s just not a whole lot I can do about that. Anyway,
working with you was a pleasure even though things did not play out in
the end. You would be welcome to come to Chicago and speak at one of
our events at another time, on another topic, with a different panel.
Thank you very much again and I hope your semester finishes up nicely
On May 10 Lott attacked Donohue again:
Of course, it would be nice if [Donohue] decided to show up for
scheduled debates (see the posts for 11-30-04 and 4-7-05, an
additional attempt to set up a debate is discussed here: 5-7-05).
There is nothing more on Lott’s blog about his May 25 talk at Chicago.
Why? Read the next two emails.
On May 12 the head of the Federalist Society at the
University of Chicago wrote to Donohue:
We have requested and insisted that Lott remove the postings about
the University of Chicago events. By the beginning of next week I
should be able to tell you how the matter is finally resolved. I am
sorry that our invitation to you has brought so much trouble—I am
working to have all of the offending posts removed promptly. You have
been most patient through all of this, and I’m grateful,
And again on May 20:
I was not able to persuade Dr. Lott to withdraw the posts from his
blog. As a result, I withdrew Dr. Lott’s invitation to speak. The
event scheduled for next week has been cancelled.
Thank you for your patience in all of this. I am most sorry for the
Yes, Lott chose to have a talk he was to give cancelled rather than
delete posts that he knew to be false. He didn’t even have to post
corrections, just remove the offending posts.
Update: Lott replies.