Stanford Orders Mandatory Free Speech Sessions for the Law School But Will Not Hold Students Accountable for Disrupting Judge’s Remarks

This week, Stanford Law School dean Jenny Martinez released a powerful defense of free speech in a 10-page letter to the entire school. The letter also revealed that Associate Dean Tirien Steinbach has been put on leave after her disgraceful condemnation of conservative appellate judge Stuart Duncan. Martinez chastised the students responsible for cancelling Duncan’s remarks by shouting him down. The letter follows an intimidating protest at Martinez’s class and demands that she withdraw an earlier apology. However, Martinez still refuses to hold the students personally accountable for their stopping the event.

Students were previously told that if they were traumatized by the cancelling of the event, they could go to Steinbach for support. It now appears that Steinbach will be on leave for an unspecified period.

The letter itself is a commendable and compelling defense of free speech values. Martinez reaffirms what many of us have said: students exercise their free speech in protesting outside of an event, but cannot go inside an event to disrupt it. She denounced the students for denying the free speech rights of others:

“Some students have argued that the disruptive protest of the event was itself constitutionally protected speech. Of course, protests are in some instances protected by the First Amendment, but the First Amendment does not give protestors a “heckler’s veto.” As First Amendment scholar Dean Erwin Chemerinsky has written, “Freedom of speech does not protect a right to shout down others so they cannot be heard.”…

To the contrary, settled First Amendment law allows many governmental restrictions on heckling to preserve the countervailing interest in free speech…

…The President of the University and I have apologized to Judge Duncan for a very simple reason – to acknowledge that his speech was disrupted in ways that undermined his ability to deliver the remarks he wanted to give to audience members who wanted to hear them, as a result of the failure to ensure that the university’s disruption policies were followed.”

The letter is a full throated rejection of anti-free speech sentiments long voiced by figures in academia and the media. Many have argued that “deplatforming” or shouting down others to prevent them from speaking is a form of free speech. Cancel campaigns are now a common occurrence in schools ranging from Yale to Northwestern to Georgetown.  Blocking others from speaking is not the exercise of free speech. It is the very antithesis of free speech.

Nevertheless, faculty have supported such claims. Years ago, at Rice University, I debated NYU Professor Jeremy Waldron who is a leading voice for speech codes. Waldron insisted that shutting down speakers through heckling is a form of free speech. It is not. It is a rationalization for stopping certain views from being voiced or heard in higher education.  CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,”  Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned). Even student newspapers have declared opposing speech to be outside of the protections of free speech.

Many anti-free speech voices in the media have repeated this twisted view of free speech. For example, Above the Law has been prominent in running columns supporting this view and even defending the lack of ideological diversity on faculties. Senior Editor Joe Patrice dismissed numerous polls showing that faculty and students now self-censor in fear that they will face cancel campaigns or sanctions. He defended “predominantly liberal faculties” and argued that hiring a conservative professor is akin to allowing a believer in geocentrism to teach. He also mocked students who are fearful of speaking freely in class, dismissing them as “just… conservatives being sad that everyone else makes fun of them.” Patrice has even denounced the use of “heckler’s veto” by myself and now the Stanford law dean.

Dean Martinez rejects those extremist views and that is much to her credit.

The problem is this statement:

“Several factors lead me to conclude that what is appropriate here is mandatory educational programming for our student body rather than referring specific students for disciplinary sanction. As one first step the law school will be holding a mandatory half-day session in spring quarter for all students on the topic of freedom of speech and the norms of the legal profession.”

It is a bit curious to require the victims of this disruption to attend mandatory free-speech sessions with those who denied their exercise of free speech.

The fact is that, as Martinez notes, the law school was already committed to free speech values and barred the disruption of such events. These students chose to ignore those rules because they knew that they would not be held accountable. They stopped the exercise of free speech because they believed that they had the license to do so. They even complained about their names being mentioned in an article after a campaign to name and shame conservative students. They failed to see why they should bear any consequences for stopping others from hearing views that they oppose.

Absent real accountability for these disruptions, they will continue. The hard part for administrators is not to embrace values that define higher education, but to defend those values in real terms. It is not popular or easy. However, Martinez just gave these students a pass after cancelling the remarks of a federal appellate judge and openly defying protections for free speech. That will convey a message of its own — a message at odds with the fine sentiments contained in this letter.


73 thoughts on “Stanford Orders Mandatory Free Speech Sessions for the Law School But Will Not Hold Students Accountable for Disrupting Judge’s Remarks”

  1. These students and Associate Dean Tirien Steinbach knew precisely what they were doing. Students that conduct themselves in horrible conduct and manners are substandard individuals. Instead, for these students, a hefty fine, placement on their college records of this conduct, and classes they had to miss for their actions. They should not be able to take any tests or finals that may arise during removal from all classes. If they have to spend X amount of extra time in college, it will open their eyes. This babying of them does them and no one else any good. Ms. Steinbach needs to be removed permanently and should not be teaching at a supposed college of high standards; she is a failure. I would not hire any graduate or faculty member from what is obviously a failing college.

  2. It’s nice to know that we in the Midwest and the South don’t sit on an island. Raised in the South, live in the Midwest. Left the bid cities at the age of 31. Still sane. My hope is those 2 areas lead us out of this insanity.
    Appreciate your comments, co- travelers.

  3. “. . . denied their exercise of free speech.” (JT)

    If you want to stop in its tracks the ubiquitous federal censors (via countless alphabet agencies), do this:

    Pick a few prominent federal censors. With attendant fanfare (including perp walks), prosecute them for a *criminal* civil rights violation of, among other rights, 1A.

    Here’s the Statute: “This statute makes it a crime for any person acting under color of law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom to willfully deprive or cause to be deprived from any person those rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the U.S.”

    Then watch with glee as the rats flee the ship.

    Good luck, though, finding a federal prosecutor who values constitutional rights and has the courage to pursue such a case.

  4. C’mon Turley, you need to be fair.

    The Dean was put between a rock and a hard spot.

    Regardless of how either you or I feel about the heckling of the judge, the DEI Dean put Stanford in a difficult position.
    She implicitly condoned the student’s right to Heckle. This made any action against the protesters for misconduct impossible.

    The Dean is merely reading the tea leaves where the judges and most of the adults still in the legal profession will discount students from their schools as being potential problems. Meaning that the Stanford’s brand would be forever damaged unless she took action.

    What I think is important is that the Dean didn’t go far enough.

    That while there’s a right to protest, those engaged in a “heckler’s veto” would be reprimanded and face possible action for their involvement.
    She should have done this moving forward. She did not. That too is a damning issue, albeit not as bad as condoning the students actions which the DEI dean clearly did.

    That said, its clear that Stanford is not the place I’d want to send a kid to law school. You’re paying for the name and potential access, not for the quality of the education.


  5. The 19th century legal philosopher John Austin defined law as the command of a sovereign enforced by a sanction for its violation. “On Austin’s view, a rule R is
    legally valid (i.e., is a law) in a society S if and only if R is commanded by the sovereign in S and is backed up with the threat of a sanction. The relevant social fact that confers validity, on Austin’s view, is promulgation by a sovereign willing to impose a sanction for noncompliance.” _of_ John_Austin_s_Legal_Positivism.pdf Put colloquially, If an authortative body announses a rule but does not sanction its violation, then that authority is just kidding.

  6. It’s a law school. Suspend them until they can return and present a legal defense for their actions. If they come back and present a legal case against their own actions, then just maybe you’ll have taught them humility as well.

  7. Refusing to hold the students (professors?) accountable, is a stain on Stanford in general, and the law school specifically. But the only way to hold the accountable is to refuse to hire employees that have degrees from Stanford.
    I had a small role in hiring people with agronomy degrees. I recommended and was successful in removing MizzU grads from the pool of candidates. We wrote letters to the Ag College notifying them of the decision and why. The in the class profs, have tried to atone for the idiocy demonstrated by administrators for their support of a very few agitators. Those MizzU profs that talk to me, are great people, but I explain they have a problem, and until administrators stop catering to a vocal minority, we want no part of they product the University is turning out.

    Stanford was one of the best law schools. Their graduates commanded top salaries. If I hired graduates from law school, It would be years before I would again consider anyone with a Stanford degree.

    This is like vouchers for public money following the student into private schools. States are passing laws to make it happen. The reason, Administrators ignore parents and take orders from a few in the fringes of leftist ideology.
    Pay attention to customer, or you will go out of business.

    1. The only problem is many of the largest law firms in the country that hire from schools like Stanford, Harvard and Yale have themselves embraced DEI, wokeism, and the limiting of free speech The Secretary of Homeland Security (an oxymoron for Mayorkas) Alejandro N. Mayorkas worked for O’Melveny & Myers and then WilmerHale, both are DEI supporters.

      1. maj229
        Then it keeps flowing downhill. Businesses will refuse lawyers spouting such nonsense. Refuse firms that hire such lawyers.

        These law students need their names made public. The students themselves should seek the public exposure. They must be proud of their actions, shouting down a District Judge should be a part of their resume. Let’s force these students to stand atop their action and live in the glow of admiration.

      2. Maj,
        Having recently watched Sen. Kennedy ask another court nominee a law school 101 question that the nominee could not answer, I would love it if they would then have the nominee disclose for the record what law school they graduated from and what firms they were employed by.

        1. Olly Sen. Kennedy gives a Masters class on cross-examination every time he asks a nominee questions. Judicial nominees who can’t answer fairly simple legal questions have no business being nominated. But it’s not just about legal competency, it’s about political favors and filling a box with the appropriate DEI candidate.

    1. That’s been happening for 20+ years. I’ve been a lawyer for almost 45+ years. I started noticing in the 1990s that many, not all, but a significant number, of new attorneys I dealt with as opposing counsel would keep arguing after a Court made its ruling, then once outside the courtroom, continue to argue with me about the ruling, calling the judge an idiot or worse, calling my client a liar, and on and on, all the while their voice getting louder and louder.

      It hasn’t gotten better with time.

      1. Maj229:

        Been going on longer than that. I started law practice in 1962 and encountered it then, almost always from the partners (not the “new attorneys”) of the biggest and most “prestigious” law firms in the country.
        Their egos and sense of entitlement were astonishing.

  8. The adoption of campus free speech principles is meaningless without the inclusion, in the same document, of clear disciplinary consequences for their violation.

  9. A re-education exercise is silly. SLS students know how to be polite and respectful.

    They made a deliberate and conscious choice to be rude and obnoxious. It’s part of their leftist identity. It’s who they are.

  10. Kind of wonder what the blowback was from the alumni and donors. Must have been substantial. Well now we have seen the velvet glove of the “free speech sessions” but we have yet to see anything like the steel fist necessary to fire the offending dean and possible expulsion of students in the future should this be repeated. I would give the students a warning this time but it needs to stop. Of course the whole university and others of the same ilk need to clean up their act or this type of movement will have further deterioration to greater and greater confrontations that could have a very unhappy ending. And the right can also do its part by staying respectful.
    Screaming and yelling at political events is one thing, but courses and speeches by learned individuals in universities, no matter how unpleasant to hear, are easily bearable no matter what they preach. I have sat through many of those through the years and never rioted or disrupted an event. Some times you even learn something new. Although practicing in the midwest, For nearly 30 years I trekked to Harvard for their CME (which I judged the best in Medicine) and listened to many a liberal interpretation of events but it never caught on with me. One of the poorest responses by the crowd was a speech by Arnold Relman who used to be Editor of the NEJM. At the end of his speech he said (paraphrase) that we physicians should trust the government because it would take care of us. There was generalized murmuring throughout the crowd and strange glances by several hundreds of physicians. This was the equivalent of screaming and yelling in a medical meeting. Even the mass of liberals in the room were unsettled by his comment.

    1. G.E.B.,
      Excellent point about the alumni. My experience is that most universities, outside of those with huge endowments, are always looking for cash. Alumni and donors have more power than they (perhaps) realize.

    2. @GEB,

      I’d say it was less about donors and more about the future employers of these kids.

      If you were a top law firm, would you hire a brash individual who lacks proper decorum? Or would potentially embarrass the firm by doing things like firebombing a police cruiser? (NYC protests)

      Or if you were a judge, would you want these kids clerking for you?

      Sure big donors can pick up the phone. True of any University. But hiccups like this are soon forgotten.


  11. Despite her well-intended efforts Dean Martinez avoids the tougher decision (and I would argue the most important decision) to hold her students accountable for their reprehensible behavior. Without confronting them directly, their hissy fit little temper tantrums will continue. I guess Stanford law school thinks this will be a winning strategy as their students enter the workforce as practicing attorneys and they begin shouting down District Judges with whom they disagree. I can’t wait !! Thank you, Jonathan, for an excellent article.

  12. Our “leaders of tomorrow” can’t even handle someone ‘s alternate point of view… how will they stand against Communist China, Iran, etc. Maybe that’s the point. I hope it’s just a Phase.

    1. This is all performative. There is no genuine hurt or offence. They are ideologues and want to shut down anyone with a different view. The victim trope is just a pose. These people are not hyper sensitive; don’t fall for the act.

      1. @Daniel

        That’s the thing though – kids like this of gen y/z really are that fragile and unhinged. They would have been the age of my wife’s students a few years ago, and I can tell you that her simply correcting kids, even gently, in class, caused several of them to literally wet their pants right there in their seats. 14 year-olds. They still bring stuffed animals to school. This is not hyperbole.

        What we are seeing really are temper tantrums by young adults who are still toddlers intellectually and emotionally. Now they are old enough to actually be dangerous when they get overwhelmed (see Antifa, BLM, etc.). It is not theater, and we really, really need to start turning it around, stat.

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