A bunch of students at Stanford Law school, egged on by a DEI dean, managed to shut down a talk by Judge Kyle Duncan, who’s on the Court of Appeals of the Fifth Circuit. That’s one of the 13 appellate courts of last resort before the final one: the U.S. Supreme Court. The Fifth, headquartered in the southern United States, is known for the conservative tenor of its decisions, and nearly all its judges were appointed by Republicans.
Stanford Law School, on the other hand, is known as Left-wing, indeed, in many ways it’s woke. Ergo there was bound to be trouble when the student branch of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization, invited Kyle Duncan to speak on a topic one would think would interest SLS students: “The Fifth Circuit in Conversation with the Supreme Court: Covid, guns, and Twitter.” It’s not often law students get to hear an appellate court judge discuss interactions with the Supreme Court (justices tend to keep their views private), so this would be something I’d want to hear, too.
The SLS student didn’t. They are incurious about views contrary to their own, and showed it.
First, a poster appeared, produced by SLS students, showing all the officers of the school’s Federalist Society. It’s a way of doxing them, but it’s legal. Still, it was meant to intimidate them by urging other students to demonize them.
Below is another one indicting Judge Duncan (not all the accusations are accurate, and of course “fought” really means “ruled on the issue”). It is true, however, that he’s a conservative justice, and was appointed by Trump. That alone makes him anathema to most SLS students.
Finally, the talk was further attacked in advance in an email sent to the students by Tirien Steinbach, the Law School’s Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. You can see that email, and a pretty balanced summary of all the issues and events around Duncan’s visit, in the Substack article below by David Lat, a legal journalist who also leans to the right. (He does, however, call out Judge Duncan for his own juvenile behavior during the Q&A session.)
Click to read:
Lat reproduces Steinbach’s email, which is too long to repeat here. It does, however, throw gasoline on the fire. At the same time she assures students that Stanford favors free speech, she also reminds them how odious Judge Duncan is:
While Judge Duncan is not expected to present on his views, advocacy or judicial decisions related directly to LGBTQ+ civil rights, this is an area of law for which he is well known. Numerous senators, advocacy groups, think tanks, and judicial accountability groups opposed Kyle Duncan’s nomination to the bench because of his legal advocacy (and public statements) regarding marriage equality, and transgender, voting, reproductive, and immigrants’ rights. However, he was confirmed in 2018. He has been invited to speak at SLS by the student chapter of the Federalist Society.
A coalition of SLS students have expressed their upset and outrage over Judge Duncan’s invitation to speak at SLS. For some members of our community, Judge Duncan, during his time as an attorney and judge, has “repeatedly and proudly threatened healthcare and basic rights for marginalized communities, including LGBTQ+ people, Native Americans, immigrants, prisoners, Black voters, and women,” and his presence on campus represents a significant hit to their sense of belonging.
And while she reminds students that SLS will not censor Judge Duncan, that’s exactly what happened. Far more students showed up to protest Duncan’s appearance than to listen to him. They held up signs and, as Duncan began to speak, repeatedly interrupted him and shouted him down.
Below: one tweet from Aaron Sibarium’s twitter thread, showing a protest sign (“Duncan can’t find the clit”, presumably referring to his stand on abortion) and some of the student reaction.
Each time Duncan began to speak, the protesters would heckle him with insults, shouting things like "scumbag!" and "you’re a liar!"
The din became so loud that Duncan asked for an administrator to keep order, according to video of the event.
— Aaron Sibarium (@aaronsibarium) March 11, 2023
Unfortunately, when Duncan asked the SLS administrators to restore order (three were in attendance), the one who stepped in was DEI dean Steinbach, who proceeded not to restore order, but to lecture Duncan for nine minutes about how he was causing “harm” to the students. She also questioned whether Stanford’s free-speech policy wasn’t itself harmful—whether “the juice was worth the squeeze”. Apparently Steinbach had prepared written remarks for such an occasion, anticipating that she’d get to chew out the Judge.
Here's video of Stanford DEI dean Steinbach's remarks slamming Judge Duncan and setting forth university policy on free speech while calling its soundness into question and stating that it might need to be reconsidered. /8https://t.co/PrfovwmMYj
— Ed Whelan (@EdWhelanEPPC) March 10, 2023
As Lat recounts, Duncan’s talk ended without students being able to listen:
As you can see from the video, about half of the protestors eventually left at the direction of a student protest leader, with one of them charmingly calling the judge “scum” as she walked out. Yet the heckling continued, and still the administrators did nothing to intervene. Eventually, the student-relations representative tried to intervene once it had become clear that the event was out of control—but Judge Duncan then criticized him, telling him that he should have acted sooner.
Not getting traction trying to give a speech, Judge Duncan moved on to the question-and-answer session, and the protestors quieted down enough to ask a few questions. The questions—and answers—were generally contemptuous. As the judge put it to me, while he’s usually happy to answer questions when he speaks at law schools, the questions he received at Stanford were not asked in good faith; in his words, they were of the “how many people have you killed” or “how many times did you beat your wife last week” variety.
According to Lat, Duncan himself lost his cool and responded angrily to the students:
After around ten minutes of trying to give his remarks, Judge Duncan became angry, departed from his prepared remarks, and laced into the hecklers. He called the students “juvenile idiots” and said he couldn’t believe the “blatant disrespect” he was being shown after being invited to speak. He said that the “prisoners were now running the asylum,” which led to a loud round of boos. His pushback riled up the protesters even more.
I can understand Duncan’s anger, but a federal judge should be able to restrain his temper under fire.
Duncan has remained angry in later interviews, “saying that the protesters behaved like ‘dogs**t’ and that Dean Steinbach should be fired.” At the very least, I think Steinbach’s behavior was execrable—far, worse than the Judge’s, and she should be disciplined if not fired. She knew full well what her actions would cause, for she’d prepared remarks for that very occurrence.
The next day, Jenny Martinez, Dean of the SLS, wrote an email to the community saying, in effect, that “mistakes were made”, and that Judge Duncan should have been allowed to speak. But she made no mention of DEI Dean Steinbach’s role in the whole thing. Lat reproduces Martinez’s email in his Substack post,
I found Martinez’s “apology” okay but insufficient, and I emailed her directly (copying it to Stanford’s President), saying that at the very least Steinbach deserved a reprimand. It is not the purpose of a DEI dean to create even more division and disunity, and Steinbach, who should have behaved more professionally, acted like a frothing ideologue. “Harm” indeed! Can we replace this “harm” word for what it really means in these situations: “offense”?
In the video, Dean Steinbach—who ostensibly was brought into the event to restore calm, and arguably did so—repeatedly praised the hecklers and accused the speaker of “harm.” She also muses about whether, in regard to Stanford’s permissive free expression policies, the “juice is worth the squeeze.” She suggests the university “might need to reconsider these policies” to prevent speakers like Duncan from sharing their views on campus in the future because they may upset some students.
. . . When the university allows speakers like Judge Duncan to be silenced, it sends the message to all in the Stanford community that those who engage in unlawful, disruptive conduct have the power to dictate which voices and views may be heard on campus. If reports about last night’s disruption are accurate, Stanford must take immediate steps to reaffirm its commitment to expressive rights for all. Failure to do so quickly and clearly will be to Stanford’s lasting shame.
Yesterday, both Stanford’s President, Marc Tessier-Lavigne and SLS Dean Martinez personally apologized in a joint letter to Judge Duncan. Eugene Volokh posts those apologies here. It’s a good letter, and does refer indirectly to DEI Dean Steinbach. They also promise to do better. I’ll believe it when I see it. From the letter:
We are very clear with our students that, given our commitment to free expression, if there are speakers they disagree with, they are welcome to exercise their right to protest but not to disrupt the proceedings. Our disruption policy states that students are not allowed to “prevent the effective carrying out” of a “public event” whether by heckling or other forms of interruption.
In addition, staff members who should have enforced university policies failed to do so, and instead intervened in inappropriate ways that are not aligned with the university’s commitment to free speech.
The only person that last paragraph could refer to is Dean Steinbach.
So that’s the story, and it’s been all over the media—the Right-wing media, mostly, for it’s not in the Left-wing media’s interest to show bad behavior of those on its end of the ideological spectrum.
The Big Lesson: As Christopher Hitchens observed in his marvelous talk in Toronto on free speech, if people have an opinion that is grossly different from the “prevailing wisdom,” that makes it even more urgent to not only allow those persons to speak, but to listen to them. Judge Duncan should have been listened to quietly (I also don’t think signs should be allowed in the lecture room, as they are designed to discombobulate the speaker), and the post talk questions, if confrontational, should at least have been polite.
But it’s not just the fault of the Stanford Law students, for their school apparently failed to instill in them the meaning of the First Amendment and how it should be respected on a campus. I’d suggest to Dean Martinez that a first-year’s orientation at SLS should include a unit on freedom of speech.
UPDATE: A new article in The Stanford Review, the university’s conservative newspaper. Click to read:
Stanford’s apology to Duncan stated the obvious: this shouldn’t have happened. Judge Duncan graciously accepted the apology. In doing so, he reiterated that he never should have been shouted down in the first place and that staff members who should have enforced university policies failed to do so. He reiterated how poor the behavior of Steinbach was, stating that “the administrators’ behavior was completely at odds with the law school’s mission of training future members of the bench and bar.” The apology also said that Stanford would take steps to ensure this does not happen again. However, it is unclear what Stanford plans to do to prevent such disruption in the future. Firing Dean Steinbach is a good start.
The university’s apology will be completely meaningless unless concrete actions are taken to rid the administration of anti-speech zealots
They’re right: unless there is action, all we have is meaningless words. I am not a “cancel culture” advocate who normally calls for somebody who makes a misstep to be fired. But what Dean Steinbach did wasn’t a misstep: it was a deliberately planned and timed provocation to push back on Stanford’s free speech policy and prevent the students from hearing “offensive” speech like that proferred by Judge Duncan. This was not a misstep but sabotage of Stanford’s policies, and, upon reflection, I think they should give Dean Steinbach her walking papers.