Stanford Law Apologizes for How Jeering Students Shut Down Conservative Judge and Called Him ‘Scum’: What’s Next?

The embarrassing incident is the latest reminder that conservatives can be quite unwelcome at the most elite law schools, where the right to free speech is forgotten.

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

A joint apology issued by the dean of Stanford Law School, Jenny Matinez, and the president of the Silicon Valley stronghold, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, appear unlikely to quiet concerns that the law students are not alright. 

At issue is whether those trained in the law — especially those at the most elite constitutional citadels — have lost the ability to respectfully disagree.

That concern was voiced to the Sun by legal titans Alan Dershowitz and Eugene Volokh as well as a student, Spencer Segal, who was involved in planning the event that prompted the apology and was on hand that day. All sensed that what transpired at Stanford is indicative of a broader turn against freedom of speech.      

The event that precipitated the weekend crisis at Palo Alto centered on the appearance on campus of a rider of the Fifth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, Kyle Duncan. The jurist had been invited by Stanford Law’s chapter of the Federalist Society, a nationwide group for conservative law students. 

His topic was, “The Fifth Circuit in Conversation with the Supreme Court: Covid, Guns, and Twitter”; Judge Duncan was unable to complete his remarks due to the protests.  

Mr. Segal, a member of the Federalist Society, tells the Sun that attendees at the talk were outnumbered by protesters by about five to one, with individual students being called out by name as they entered the classroom where the event transpired.

An associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Tirien Steinbach, commandeered the microphone after Judge Duncan requested assistance and chastised him — “your work has caused harm” — and called herself “uncomfortable because this event is tearing at the fabric of this community that I care about, and I’m here to support.”

Ms. Steinbach added that “your opinions from the bench land as absolute disenfranchisement” and that Judge Duncan’s speech “literally denies the humanity of people,” and she wondered if “the juice is worth the squeeze? Is this worth the pain that this causes and the division that this causes?”

 Mr. Segal added his eyewitness account that the shouts of the students — “scumbag” and “liar” — combined with Ms. Steinbach’s stewardship of the event meant that Stanford Law “effectively endorsed a heckler’s veto.” He disclosed that he approached Ms. Steinbach after the event was called off midstream and solicited her reflections on how things went. She told him that “this is how things are supposed to work.”

Judge Duncan was harsher, labeling the students’ behavior “dogs—” and calling Ms. Steinbach’s intervention a “bizarre therapy session from hell.” In an interview with Reuters, he called the students “idiots,” “hypocrites,” and “bullies.” He demanded an apology, and has called for Ms. Steinbach to be fired.    

Stanford’s higher-ups issued an apology, writing to Judge Duncan to “apologize for the disruption of your recent speech at Stanford Law School,” which was “inconsistent with our policies on free speech.” They added that they were “very sorry about the experience you had while visiting our campus.”

Ms. Martinez and Mr. Tessier-Lavigne note that they “are taking steps to ensure that something like this does not happen again” and that “we can and must do better.” They offered their “sincerest apologies.” Dean Martinez allowed that “however well-intentioned, attempts at managing the room in this instance went awry.” 

Judge Duncan accepted the apology, although he urged the school to apologize to the Federalist Society and anticipated learning “what measures Stanford plans to take to restore a culture of intellectual freedom.” He labeled the school’s behavior “completely at odds with the law school’s mission of training future members of the bench and bar.”

Mr. Volokh, who teaches at the University off California, Los Angeles, tells the Sun that the “premise of higher education is that disputes — even on the most important topics — should be confronted through serious debate, not through shouting people down or trying to shame fellow students. That is also, of course, the premise of our legal system.” 

Also weighing in to the Sun was a longtime Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz. He insists that diversity, equity, and inclusion “should include viewpoint diversity.” He describes himself as “liberal, but not woke.” He advocates for publishing the names of students who stand against freedom of speech.  

Mr. Dershowitz called Ms. Steinbach a “villain” for how she handled Judge Duncan and noted that the same ideological currents that disrupted Judge Duncan would “prevent him from teaching at Harvard today,” notwithstanding his half century of employment at the school.

The New York Sun

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