The Mercury News

Stanford needs more than words to protect free speech

- By Michael B. Poliakoff and Steven McGuire 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.

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.

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