Last month, Stuart Kyle Duncan — a federal appeals court judge appointed by former President Donald J. Trump — visited Stanford Law School to give a talk, but was interrupted frequently by student protesters. A video from the event went viral, reigniting the debate over free speech on college campuses.
How important is free speech and the free exchange of ideas on college campuses? Are these ideals worth defending even when speakers or ideas make us feel uncomfortable or even threatened?
Vimal Patel writes about the controversy in “At Stanford Law School, the Dean Takes a Stand for Free Speech. Will It Work?”:
The furor started on March 9, when Stuart Kyle Duncan, a conservative judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, spoke to a roomful of students at the invitation of the student chapter of the Federalist Society.
Before becoming a judge, he had defended Louisiana’s gay-marriage ban in a Supreme Court hearing. And he had defended a North Carolina law restricting transgender people from using their preferred bathrooms.
Students were particularly upset that, in 2020, as a judge, he had denied the request of a transgender woman who asked the court to refer to her with female pronouns. It was an especially sensitive subject, as many in the law school were still grieving the death of a transgender student last year.
At the event, Judge Duncan was relentlessly heckled and traded barbs with students. He tried to power through his prepared remarks but was unable to speak more than a few words without interruption. He called for the help of an administrator to restore order.
Tirien Steinbach, the associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, stepped to the podium and began six minutes of remarks that would be recorded on video.
She said that, to many people in the room, Judge Duncan’s work had “caused harm.” She asked him, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” That is, was the decision by Judge Duncan to speak worth the division it was causing students?
Her remarks became a signature moment online, condemned for giving tacit approval to the “heckler’s veto.” The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression said that Ms. Steinbach had said the quiet part out loud, to chilling effect.
“Every day around the country, administrators are putting issues of ‘equity’ before students’ expressive rights,” Alex Morey, an official with the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free-speech group, said. “Those things do not have to be in tension.”
Two days after the event, Jenny S. Martinez, the dean of Stanford Law School, and the president of the university apologized to Judge Duncan and, without naming Ms. Steinbach, said that “staff members who should have enforced university policies failed to do so, and instead intervened in inappropriate ways that are not aligned with the university’s commitment to free speech.”
In an Opinion Essay, “Free Speech Doesn’t Mean Free Rein to Shout Down Others,” David French writes:
Robust protest should be welcome in the academy, and it is entirely appropriate to ask any judge difficult questions during the question and answer session after a speech. But protests that go so far as to shout down or disrupt speeches or events aren’t free speech but rather mob censorship.
This is an ancient principle of American liberty. My right to protest does not encompass a right to silence or drown out another person. As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in 1860 after an antislavery event was disrupted in Boston by a violent mob, “There can be no right of speech where any man, however lifted up, or however humble, however young, or however old, is overawed by force, and compelled to suppress his honest sentiments.”
He continued, “Equally clear is the right to hear. 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.” By shouting down Judge Duncan, the Stanford protesters violated his right to speak and the attending students’ right to hear his speech.
Students, read one or both of the articles and then tell us:
What should free speech look like on college and university campuses? When, if ever, should speech be limited? How should we treat unpopular, harmful or hateful speech? Where is the line between protected and unprotected speech?
How would you describe the exchange of ideas at your own school? Do you think students — and teachers — can share, discuss and debate ideas and questions freely? Would you say there is viewpoint diversity in your school? If not, what do you think could help foster a culture of free speech?
What is your reaction to the incident at Stanford Law School? Should students have the right to protest, heckle or even disrupt an invited speaker if they believe the speaker has done harm through their actions and words? Or do you agree with Mr. French that protests that go so far as to shout down or disrupt speeches or events “aren’t free speech but rather mob censorship.”
In The Nation, Elie Mystal defended the students: “Everybody has the right to speak; nobody has the right to be heard over the din of the crowd,” he wrote. Mr. Mystal also criticized Judge Duncan for insulting the students during the event. (The judge called one student “an appalling idiot.”) Do you agree with Mr. Mystal’s defense of the protesters? Is there a danger in over-protecting free speech? Might it cause us to squelch the right to protest, question and dissent?
After the incident, Jenny S. Martinez, Stanford Law School’s dean, apologized to Judge Duncan and released a 10-page memo that rebuked the student activists: “Some students might feel that some points should not be up for argument and therefore that they should not bear the responsibility of arguing them,” she wrote. But that, she continued, “is incompatible with the training that must be delivered in a law school.” She added, “I believe that the commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion actually means that we must protect free expression of all views.” What do you think of her memo? Was she correct to chastise the student activists? Does it go far enough?
In a related article, David Leonhardt notes that over the past few years, some American universities have seemed to back away from their historical support for free speech. He cited three examples: Hamline University in Minnesota effectively fired a teacher who showed a 14th-century painting of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class. A Princeton student lost her leadership position on a sports team after privately expressing an opinion about policing. And Stanford itself allows students to file anonymous complaints against other students, including for speech. How big an issue do you think free speech on campus is? What do you think is at stake for society as a whole?