Goodwin Procter said Tuesday it will neither cosponsor nor host a forum aimed at promoting investment in Russia that was to be held in the firm's New York office on Nov. 18 after learning that American Bar Association president James Silkenat had withdrawn as keynote speaker.
Gay rights activists had urged Silkenat and Goodwin to cut their ties to the Russia Forum New York event in light of anti-gay legislation recently enacted by Russia that has sparked protests there and abroad.
A Goodwin spokesman told The Am Law Daily that the firm agreed to host the forum and serve as a cosponsor when approached in August by the event's organizer, The Russian Center New York. At the time, the spokesman said, the firm understood that Silkenat would deliver the keynote address and that the City of New York was also sponsoring the event. (While the event's website once listed the Office of the Mayor of New York City as a sponsor, it was eventually removed, according to the Huffington Post, which reported last week that a mayoral spokesman said the office had never agreed to participate in the event.)
According to the Goodwin spokesman: "Recently, several troubling issues, including the Russian government’s anti-gay policies, were brought to our attention, and … Mr. Silkenat withdrew as keynote speaker for the event over this past weekend. These issues were discussed at length by Goodwin’s leaders, members of our Russian practice and the leaders of Goodwin’s longstanding partner-led LGBT committee. Based on these concerns and Mr. Silkenat’s withdrawal, we reached a decision [Monday] night that we could not provide space or support for the event and communicated that to The Russian Center."
As described on the Russia Forum website, the event's agenda was to include a series of discussions focused on the Russian investment climate. Among the gathering's stated goals: "to improve interaction between the Russian and U.S. fiscal markets." The forum is meant to coincide with the New York Stock Exchange's annual Russia Day, which is also set for Nov. 18.
The ABA confirmed earlier this week to Gay City News that Silkenat, a New York–based Sullivan & Worcester corporate partner, had withdrawn from the event. Contacted for comment, an ABA spokesman provided The Am Law Daily with the following statement from Silkenat: "I remain committed to engaging with those in Russia who are working to put an end to human rights abuses in their country, and I will look for effective ways to oppose Russia's policies and practices that oppress the LGBT community." (Gay City News notes that gay activist and recent New York University Law School graduate Bert Leatherman started change.org petitions calling on Silkenat and Goodwin Procter to pull out of the forum and for the NYSE to cancel its Russia Day.)
Silkenat's decision drew positive responses from LGBT activist group Queer Nation NY and from politicians such as New York state Senator Brad Hoylman, an openly gay Democrat who said in a statement that he applauded the ABA president for sending "a strong message to the Russian Federation that its state sponsored attacks against [LGBT] people will not be condoned by leaders in the international legal and investment communities."
Queer Nation NY planned to protest the event by demonstrating outside Goodwin's offices in The New York Times building on Eighth Avenue, according to group member Duncan Osborne. With Goodwin withdrawing as host, it was unclear whether the event will be moved to an alternate location. A request for comment sent to the forum's media contact was not returned.
"We are interested in directly confronting Russian government officials at every opportunity we have and we are interested in forcing a conversation about what the Russian government is doing. If these things get shut down, then we're deprived of that opportunity, so that's not what we're looking to do," he said.
At the same time, Osborne applauds Goodwin's decision to end its participation in the event: "We think what the Russian government is doing is immoral. It's vile. And any organization, both inside and outside of Russia, should condemn what the Russian government has done."
Goodwin has historically enjoyed a positive reputation when it comes to LGBT issues. The firm wrote an amicus brief and represented Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in the landmark case that bestowed civil marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples in Massachusetts in 2003. Goodwin was also among the firms and other professional organizations that signed an amicus brief challenging the Defense of Marriage Act before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit two years ago. The firm received a score of 90 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign's 2013 Corporate Equality Index, an annual rating of employers based on their LGBT-friendly policies.