Disruption of Speech at Stanford Prompts President to Apologize — and Criticize Staff’s Response

A student protest that interrupted a controversial speaker at Stanford University last week led its president and law dean to criticize campus staff, including, apparently, the associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion who joined the speaker at the podium and discussed the students’ concerns.

Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, was invited to give a talk titled “The Fifth Circuit in Conversation With the Supreme Court: Covid, Guns, and Twitter,” by the law school’s chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative and libertarian legal organization.

Duncan was met with a room of loud student protesters who said his history of court rulings had caused harm to LGBTQ+ students, and that giving him a platform on campus diminished their safety. (His confirmation to the Fifth Circuit was opposed by groups like the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which cited Duncan’s decisions against rights for same-sex couples and against gender-affirming bathroom access for transgender children.)

But a free-speech advocate contacted by The Chronicle said the protesters took it too far and prevented Duncan from completing the speech he was invited to give, which she said infringed on his speech rights. The situation at Stanford comes amid a national debate over how to balance free expression and student safety. It is common for conservative student groups to invite provocative speakers to give lectures on campus, which then face backlash from protesters.

“These students [protesters] are free to engage in counter-speech via peaceful protest, asserting that Judge Duncan’s judicial decisions ‘cause harm,’” wrote Alex Morey, the director of campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, in an email to The Chronicle. “What happened Thursday was not counter-speech. It was censorship.”

Stanford leaders appeared to agree. President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Jenny S. Martinez, the dean of Stanford Law School, apologized to Duncan in a joint letter.

“What happened was inconsistent with our policies on free speech, and we are very sorry about the experience you had while visiting our campus,” the letter read. “We are very clear with our students that, given our commitment to free expression, if there are speakers they disagree with, they are welcome to exercise their right to protest but not to disrupt the proceedings.”

The letter stated that under Stanford’s disruption policy, students are not allowed to “prevent the effective carrying out” of a public event by “heckling or other forms of interruption.”

The letter also criticized Stanford staff for their response to the protesters.

“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,” the letter from Stanford leadership read.

Neither Tessier-Lavigne nor Martinez were made available for comment, but their letter appeared to reference the actions of Tirien Angela Steinbach, the law school’s associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion. As captured in a video of the event, she joined Duncan at the podium after he apparently requested that an administrator assist in quieting the student protesters. At first, Duncan appeared confused when Steinbach identified herself as an administrator.

Then, Steinbach proceeded to address the crowd for roughly six minutes, as she shared her support for the student protesters but encouraged them to allow Duncan to speak.

“I’m uncomfortable because this event is tearing at the fabric of this community that I care about and that I’m here to support,” Steinbach said to the crowd. She continued to explain that for many people in the crowd, Duncan’s work had “caused harm.”

“My job is to create a space of belonging for all people in this institution, and that is hard and messy and not easy and the answers are not black or white or right or wrong,” Steinbach said. “This is actually part of the creation of belonging.”

Still, she questioned the decision to invite Duncan to speak.

Steinbach asked Duncan, “Is it worth the pain that this causes and the division that this causes? Do you have something so incredibly important to say about Twitter and guns and Covid that that is worth this impact on the division of these people, who have sat next to each other for years, who are going through what is the battle of law school together?”

Steinbach said that she believes the right to free speech must be upheld, because if Duncan’s speech were censored it wouldn’t be long before the protesters’ speech was censored as well.

But she said she understood that some students might want to change Stanford’s policies to prioritize safety and inclusion.

“I understand why people feel like harm is so great that we might need to reconsider these policies,” Steinbach said. “Luckily they are in a school where they can learn the advocacy skills to advocate for those changes.”

The Chronicle emailed Steinbach for reaction to the letter from Stanford’s president and law school dean, but received no answer.

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