ACTA in the News | Free Speech

Stanford needs more than words to protect free speech

The silencing of invited speaker Fifth Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan is an egregious affront to the university
THE MERCURY NEWS   |  March 22, 2023 by Michael B. Poliakoff and Steven McGuire

In response to the shout down of Judge Kyle Duncan at Stanford Law School on March 9, the university must act decisively to restore a culture of free expression on its campus.

Duncan, a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit covering Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, was invited by the law school’s Federalist Society chapter for a discussion on “Guns, Covid and Twitter.” His lecture ended early because several dozen law students continually interrupted him. The  protesters objected to his position on laws involving women, immigrants and LGBTQ people.

Stanford Law School Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tirien Steinbach did not stop the heckling but rather questioned the worth of hearing different viewpoints and upbraided Judge Duncan for “tearing the fabric of this community.”

So far, Stanford’s response has included an email from Law School Dean Jenny Martinez and an apology from Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Dean Martinez. The dean’s initial email included nice words about free expression but was otherwise inadequate. She said the situation “went awry” rather than acknowledging the administrative failures and said nothing about disciplining the students or administrators involved.

The letter of apology is welcome but also remains insufficient as a response. While it acknowledges that the disruption was “inconsistent” with the university’s policies and that administrators “intervened in inappropriate ways,” it still does not indicate that Dean Steinbach or the students will be held responsible for their actions.

In higher education, research misconduct and plagiarism are properly met with the termination of those found culpable. The silencing of an invited speaker is an equally egregious affront to the university, especially since the students received warning not to do so. It signals a breakdown of the values of an academic community. And a lawyer who behaved so disruptively could well leave the courtroom in handcuffs.

The Stanford community has not yet grasped the problem. An email sent to Federalist Society students after the event told them they could contact the very dean who ruined their event if they wanted support, and the students who disrupted the event are taking a public victory lap, expressing “firm support and admiration for every single person involved in planning or enacting the protest.” Many more protested Dean Martinez for apologizing.

Stanford needs to sanction the guilty administrators and students severely, particularly Dean Steinbach, and it should invite Duncan back to speak. The administration must treat this outrage as more than a public relations disaster. It needs to recognize that it is a symptom of the deadly disease of illiberalism that it has allowed to fester on campus.

This incident is just the latest abuse at Stanford. Stanford administrators encourage community members to report one another anonymously for “harmful” but “constitutionally protected speech.” Its IT office wanted to ban 12 pages’ worth of words. Heterodox professors are shunned. Some Stanford faculty wanted the university to disassociate itself from a conference on academic freedom.

It is not surprising, but it is outrageous that these are the conditions at one of America’s top universities. Stanford should be aware that Americans are increasingly fed up with the embarrassing spectacle many of their universities have become. A 2022 survey from New America found that just 55% of respondents think our colleges and universities are having a positive “effect on the way things are going in this country today.”

Will Stanford acknowledge the severity of the problem and admit that words are not enough? Significant and stern action is required to communicate to the campus community and to the American public that free expression truly is a central and protected principle at Stanford.

Michael B. Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Steven McGuire is the Paul & Karen Levy Fellow in Campus Freedom at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

This appeared in The Mercury News on March 22, 2023.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More