Stanford Diversity Dean Regrets Heckling and Jeering of Judge Duncan, Admits Mistakes Were Made

Tirien Steinbach has been placed on leave from the law school, but the university won’t confirm if it was voluntary.

Ethics and Public Policy Center
A federal appeals court judge, Kyle Duncan, at Stanford Law School on March 10, 2023. Ethics and Public Policy Center

The heckling of a federal appellate judge at Stanford Law School has been met with much scrutiny in recent weeks, raising questions about free speech culture at elite universities. The dean who told Judge Kyle Duncan of the Fifth Circuit that students who harangued him were justified is now saying she made a mistake. 

In an interview with The New York Times, Tirien Steinbach admitted that students’ heckling of Judge Duncan, a conservative, got out of hand and does not reflect her own commitment to freedom of speech. 

“My role was to de-escalate,” Ms. Steinbach said of the event. “I hoped, give the judge space to speak his prepared remarks.” 

Ultimately, Judge Duncan was forced to abandon his prepared speech and once the question-and-answer period with students became too fraught, he was escorted from the building by federal marshals.

Ms. Steinbach has since been placed on leave from the university; it has not been disclosed whether it was her decision or the administration’s. 

The president of the law school’s conservative Federalist Society chapter, Tim Rosenberger, said he has a cordial relationship with Ms. Steinbach and believes that she has been treated unfairly. “If she was the administrator whose job was to enforce the no-disruption policy, then yeah, she totally failed, but that’s not her job description,” Mr. Rosenberger told the Times. “People have called her stupid and incompetent. She’s a smart and good person who was just put in a really bad spot.”

Judge Duncan addressed Stanford students on March 9. Instead of discussing legal issues as he had planned, he was berated by students for his past rulings. 

When the crowd got too unruly, Judge Duncan handed the podium to Ms. Steinbach, who promptly dismissed the judge and praised the students. Ms. Steinbach was widely criticized for her handling of the event.  

“I had to write something down because I am so uncomfortable up here. Your advocacy, your opinions from the bench land as absolute disenfranchisement of their rights,” Ms. Steinbach said to Judge Duncan as she pointed to the crowd of students. 

“Is your speaking here worth the pain that it has caused, the division it has caused?” she asked. After she finished her remarks, dozens of students walked out of the room, with one calling Judge Duncan “scum” as she walked past the jurist. 

Since the event, some students have called for the expulsion of the student protesters, while the demonstrators themselves say they were only exercising their First Amendment rights when they addressed Judge Duncan in the way that they did. 

The dean of Stanford Law School, Jenny Martinez, sent a memo to students and faculty a few days after the incident with Judge Duncan. In it, she defends the university’s commitment to free speech and announces that students would be required to take courses in the coming months on how to conduct themselves. 

“I believe that the commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion actually means that we must protect free expression of all views,” Ms. Martinez wrote. 

The New York Sun

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