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Why the Stanford Free Speech Debacle Matters

The heckling of Judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford shows that free speech is as important in the classroom as it is in the courtroom.
Charles Snow
Written by
An aerial view of Stanford Law School

“Let’s tone down the heckling slightly,” the leader told her fellow Stanford Law students after they had hurled constant obscenities and vitriol toward federal appellate judge Kyle Duncan. Judge Duncan had been invited to speak by the campus chapter of the Federalist Society. He was set to address how judges in lower courts determine how to rule in cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence is unclear or changing.

But before Judge Duncan ever got to campus, the student mob intervened. In an act of intimidation, they covered the law school’s walls with photos of the students who had brought the judge to campus. As Judge Duncan walked into the classroom, he reported that one heckler yelled, “We hope your daughters get raped!” He took the podium to deliver prepared remarks, only to be drowned out by the hecklers while trying to speak.

The law school’s associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Tirien Steinbach, stepped in to address the students. In between uttering half-hearted commitments to free speech, Dean Steinbach validated the hecklers, smeared Judge Duncan, and asked him to consider whether his lecture was worth the protesters’ reaction. “This event is tearing at the fabric of this community that I care about and I’m here to support,” she told him.

More ink could be spilled on what transpired throughout the rest of the event. But it’s critical to ask why this debacle matters in the first place.


“Abort the conversation”

The Stanford free speech incident is merely one of the latest in a series of callouts, disruptions, and shout-downs at our nation’s elite law schools. This illiberalism has involved students using intimidation, bullying, and censorship to shut down ideas they don’t like.

Just last year, ADF CEO, President, and General Counsel Kristen Waggoner was harassed at a Yale Law School event on the importance of free speech and reaching across the ideological aisle. Just months later, some Yale Law students recommended that their classmates who thought that Roe v. Wade should be overturned be subjected to “unrelenting daily confrontation.” (Thankfully, Kristen was able to return to the Yale Law campus earlier this year and speak on free speech without incident.)

While there are glimmers of hope, students on college campuses are increasingly exchanging civility and debate for anger and censorship. As a recent column in the Yale Daily News claimed, some think it’s time to “[a]bort the conversation”—that they have realized “the futility of logical debate.”

If universities—and law schools especially—trade a culture of free speech and open debate for mob intimidation, America will suffer mightily. Free speech is as important in the classroom as it is in the courtroom. Our colleges and universities are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas in which our future leaders can seek, share, and debate what is good, true, and beautiful.

As Kristen has written, law schools have an even greater responsibility to cultivate this marketplace:

“Law schools have a special duty to preserve a culture of free speech that is conducive to a free society. These are training grounds for our nation’s future leaders, and the culture that reigns on campus today will inevitably shape our culture tomorrow. Moreover, law schools have long prided themselves on defending the rule of law and minority views. If diverse views are no longer protected at these institutions, it’s hard to see how a culture of free speech will long be able to endure.”

If top law schools like Stanford and Yale cannot foster the civil, open exchange of ideas, then free speech will suffer everywhere. Without free speech, we lose a democratic government. Without free speech, we lose our ability to advocate for truth. If our future lawyers and judges reject free speech, then, as Judge Duncan has said, “the rule of law will have turned into barbarism.”


ADF protects free speech for all

Alliance Defending Freedom knows how important free speech is in academia. That’s why we work relentlessly to ensure that all students can freely speak and engage on campus, which has led to more than 435 victories for free speech and other First Amendment freedoms.

Being committed to free speech means welcoming speech you disagree with or even find abhorrent. “Free speech for me, but not for thee” is incompatible with a pluralist society and the First Amendment itself. Christians understand human nature to be inherently fallen, infected with original sin. We know that if left to our own devices, people in power would always oppress and suppress the powerless. The U.S. Constitution recognizes this, with the First Amendment protecting the minority from the whims of the majority.

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass once wrote, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money.”

If we only “tone down the heckling slightly,” we will rob this generation and the next of “the dread of tyrants”—that each person can live and speak the truth.

Charles Snow, Senior Copywriter & Editor
Charles Snow
Content Director
Charles Snow serves as Content Director at Alliance Defending Freedom, where he supports ADF's communications and fundraising efforts.