Stanford University tries to block student from graduating for publishing a satirical post, fails on First Amendment grounds

June 3, 2021 • 10:40 am

Here’s a pretty blatant violation of the First Amendment by Stanford University as reported by Slate. But to know how it’s a violation, you have to know two pieces of law. Click on the screenshot to read:

In short, a third-year student at Stanford Law School, Nicholas Wallace, decided to make fun of the conservative Federalist Society, some of whose members agreed with the January assault on the U.S. Capitol, by publishing some satire on a listserv:

The flyer promoted a fake event, “The Originalist Case for Inciting Insurrection,” ostensibly sponsored by the Stanford Federalist Society. It advertised the participation of two politicians who tried to overturn the 2020 election, Missouri Sen. Joshua Hawley and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. “Violent insurrection, also known as doing a coup, is a classical system of installing a government,” the flyer read, adding that insurrection “can be an effective approach to upholding the principle of limited government.”

Reader Paul found a screenshot of the flyer:

The Federalist society urged Stanford to formally investigate Wallace. When the school did, Stanford put a hold on Wallace’s degree and forbade him from graduating, asserting that Wallace may have violated the University’s code of conduct.  But Stanford, and especially its law school, should have realized two things, which apparently were caught by the estimable Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), whose own statement is here.

On Tuesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to Stanford urging the school to “immediately abandon its investigation and commit to procedural reforms to protect the expressive rights Stanford promises to its students.” FIRE pointed out that California’s Leonard Law requires private universities to comply with the First Amendment, and there is no real question that Wallace’s email is shielded by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has held that satire, including offensive and hurtful expression, constitutes protected speech, and Wallace’s email is obviously satirical. “No reasonable person familiar with the email’s context would understand it to be sincere,” FIRE wrote, noting that it advertises an event that occurred 19 days earlier and is “laden with figurative language intended to impugn national political figures.”

(FIRE’s own statement is here.)

If you knew about the Leonard Law, and that satire is considered free expression, you’d realize that Stanford shouldn’t have even begun an investigation of permitted speech. Indeed, the Federalist Society itself promotes free speech on campus, so why is it doing this? Wallace suspects, correctly, I think, that this is pure retaliation.

But, as the NBC News ends every evening, “There’s good news tonight!”  Yesterday evening Slate updated the article with this:

Update, 9: 30 p.m.:  Stanford has concluded that Nicholas Wallace engaged in protected speech, dropped its investigation, and lifted the hold on his diploma. Wallace has confirmed that he will be allowed to graduate.

What’s especially ironic is that a left-wing school went after a student for making fun of a right-wing organization, all the while violating the freedom of speech that Stanford is required to adhere to.

h/t: Scott

20 thoughts on “Stanford University tries to block student from graduating for publishing a satirical post, fails on First Amendment grounds

  1. It’s also ironic that this is a law school. What in the world could they be thinking? It would be nice to know how stuff like this happens. I imagine that some law school administrator, not possessing a law degree but an education one, sees an opportunity for action and seizes it. Even then, it is really hard to imagine that someone wouldn’t think this through. I assume we’ll never know, though I’ll admit I haven’t looked to see whether those details have been revealed.

          1. You know, the kinda dummies think polypeptide be a toothpaste. My other favor clip from Me, Myself, and Irene is this one.

            I figured you Cardinals would get a laugh outta that first clip. 🙂

            1. Too funny! Gotta check out that flick. I’ve been in Canuckland too long, had me thinking hockey skates instead of Billy Bob.

  2. What’s especially ironic is that a left-wing school went after a student for making fun of a right-wing organization

    Uh? Stanford isn’t left-wing as far as I know. At least, it didn’t used to be. Part of the whole Stanford-Berkeley rivalry was over the contrast in political outlooks of the two schools and student bodies. With the exception of the Stanford band, which has traditionally been very non-traditional. 🙂

  3. Chrissake, who’d’ve thought the Federalist Society is even more thin-skinned than Jerry Falwell?

    It’s beyond me how can anyone could fail to comprehend that satire constitutes protected First Amendment speech. Always and everywhere across this country.

    1. I’m sure they knew it wouldn’t stand up. I expect they didn’t care if it did; the point was to harass/punish the person who spoke against them.

      My guess is the only reason they ‘urged an investigation’ rather than suing the student directly is that (AIUI) California has pretty strong anti-SLAPP laws, making using such a suit to do the harassing unwise.

      1. I wish that more organizations would recognize the power of responding to satire with a polite smile and an “I see what you did there”…and maybe even laughing if the satire is well done. By reacting so vindictively, such organizations help make themselves look ridiculous and insecure.

    2. But Ken, are you not aware that satire is the worst of all microaggressions? At the UW, when a conservative student group dared to present a mildly satirical public comment about Affirmative Action,
      a faculty activist in AAUP (no less!) wrote asking the administration to shut the public comment down. When I wrote a satirical reply to a departmental question about choosing personal pronouns, a grad student cabal denounced me for “microaggression” and complaints about my existence were made to the HR office. [Fortunately, my existence (being retired) was outside of the HR office’s jurisdiction.]

        1. 😂Had never seen that clip. Love Palin’s beard and his inability to keep a straight face🤓

  4. First, I freakin’ love this student because that poster is hilarious.

    Second, because he made a mockery out of The Federalist Society, not just by mocking them, but by showing them to be hypocrites and cowards. From the Society’s website, it is ostensibly devoted to the following (emphasis mine): “[Our mission] entails reordering priorities within the legal system to place a premium on individual liberty, traditional values, and the rule of law. It also requires restoring the recognition of the importance of these norms among lawyers, judges, law students and professors. In working to achieve these goals, the Society has created a conservative and libertarian intellectual network that extends to all levels of the legal community.”

    The student punched The Federalist Society in the nuts, and they responded by abandoning their supposed values in outrage. Satire rarely works out so perfectly.

  5. Shame on Stanford and double-shame on the Federalist Society, a factory for reactionary thought that’s proven it doesn’t understand the Constitution it supposedly seeks to defend.

    1. It was the Federalist Society that provided Donald Trump with a list of fully vetted right-wing Apprentice-like contestants from which he selected his 243 Article III appointments to the federal bench, including the three newest Supremes.

  6. The first thing we do is kill all the lawyers and eat all of their children. Even in Henry VI’s time this would have been a modest proposal.

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