Stanford Allows Judge Kyle Duncan’s Speech to be Shouted Down by Activists
On March 9, a Federalist Society event at Stanford Law School featuring U.S. Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan was disrupted and shouted down for an extended period by dozens of transgender activists and other hecklers, causing the event to end at least 40 minutes earlier than planned. Law professors and free speech advocates are expressing concern over the incident, calling it the latest egregious example of an ongoing assault on academic freedom and free speech occurring at college campuses around the country.
Duncan, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, has been a target of left-wing activists and congressional Democrats since his nomination by former President Trump in 2017 because of his work defending religious liberty. Last Thursday, he was invited by the Federalist Society at Stanford Law School to give a speech and answer questions, but shortly after Duncan began he was shouted down by members of the audience and the event was unable to continue.
Duncan then requested that an administrator of the university come to restore order. Tirien Steinbach, an associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) then entered the room, commandeered the podium, and began what seemed to be a prepared six-minute speech, accusing Duncan of “disenfranchising … people, families, and communities.”
After reiterating numerous times how “uncomfortable” she felt to be in the room at all, Steinbach appeared to declare the room a “safe space”: “This is actually part of the creation of belonging, and it doesn’t feel comfortable and it doesn’t always feel safe, but there are always places of safety and there is always an intention from this administration to make sure you all can be in a place where you feel fully you can be here, learn, grow into the amazing advocates and lawyers and leaders that you’re going to be.”
Condemnation of how the university handled the event came swiftly. In a letter to Stanford’s president, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s Alex Morey wrote, “Stanford promises robust expressive rights to students and faculty. Stanford is likewise obligated by California’s Leonard Law to respect its students’ expressive rights. When hecklers disrupt planned speeches on a university campus, they not only infringe a speaker’s right to deliver their message, but also the rights of anyone in the Stanford community who wishes to receive that message.”
On March 11, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and law school dean Jenny Martinez issued an apology to Duncan, writing that “what happened was inconsistent with our policies on free speech.” The letter went on to note that “staff members who should have enforced university policies failed to do so… We are taking steps to ensure that something like this does not happen again.”
Experts are seeing the incident at Stanford as a symptom of a growing crisis in higher education, particularly among elite universities, in which viewpoints contrary to those of a majority of the student body are being stifled, not only infringing on free speech rights but also creating “echo chambers” in places where the free exchange of ideas should be fundamental.
In a series of tweets, Robert P. George, who serves as McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, lamented the current state of affairs but also pointed a way forward for changing campus culture.
“The shameful incident at Stanford Law School happened because SLS, like so many other academic institutions, has become an ideological echo chamber,” he wrote. “Such incidents can be prevented, but only by enhancing viewpoint diversity, especially among faculty and administrators.”
George continued, “The core of the problem is that Woke students, being constantly confirmed in their beliefs and not having them regularly challenged, come to suppose that they are self-evidently true to any reasonable and decent person, and that anyone who doesn’t share them must be a bigot.”
“None of this has to be,” he concluded. “If students regularly encountered and engaged not only fellow students but also faculty representing a range of beliefs, including perspectives that strongly challenged their own, no one would be shocked to hear dissent. Learning would happen.”
Joseph Backholm, senior fellow for Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement at Family Research Council, asserted that the incident illustrated a broad breakdown not only on the part of Stanford but also on the part of parents.
“Stanford doesn’t need to simply apologize for the behavior of their students at this event, they need to apologize because they have failed as an educational institution,” he told The Washington Stand. “The scene created at Judge Duncan’s speech proves that many of Stanford’s law students aren’t ready for life, much less the legal profession. They lack the fortitude and decency to even listen to someone they disagree with. They lack the humility to understand that in a disagreement, they could be the one who has something to change. They aren’t ready for marriage, parenting, or the customer service desk at Walmart much less the federal judiciary. These students have been completely failed by the adults in their lives.”
Dan Hart is senior editor at The Washington Stand.