Stanford Law Dean Stands by Apology to Judge, Suspends Colleague Who Disrupted Lecture

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Stanford Law Dean Jenny Martinez released a detailed letter Wednesday criticizing the students who heckled federal judge Kyle Duncan and announcing that DEI administrator Tirien Steinbach, who interrupted his lecture, is now on leave. Martinez declined to submit to calls that she retract her letter of apology to Duncan and emphasized that Stanford’s speaker disruption policy was violated by both students and administrators.

At an event hosted by Stanford’s Federalist Society earlier this month, Duncan, who sits on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, was expecting to give a wide-ranging lecture on recent decisions that Court had handed down. However, audio and video of the event revealed that the judge was immediately heckled upon beginning his talk, with students shouting obscenities at him. When Duncan asked an administrator to intervene, he was subject to Steinbach explaining to him that he was tearing the fabric of the Stanford community. “Is the juice worth the squeeze?,” asked Steinbach.

Public outcry followed shortly thereafter. Some called for the students who heckled Duncan to be expelled and for Steinbach to be fired. Others, including many Stanford Law students, criticized and sought to shame Martinez for her public apology to Duncan, demanding she retract it.

In a ten-page letter to the Stanford Law community, Martinez announced that no students would be punished individually, instead preferring “mandatory educational programming for our student body” on freedom of speech and academic freedom.

She also announced that Steinbach was on leave and that moving forward “the role of any administrators present will be to ensure that university rules on disruption of events will be followed, and all staff will receive additional training in that regard.”

For Martinez, the commitment to diversity and inclusion does not mean speech should be limited, but precisely the opposite. “I believe that the commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion actually means that we must protect free expression of all views,” she said.

“Enforcement of university policies against disruption of speakers is necessary to ensure the expression of a wide range of viewpoints,” she added.

To justify her apology and Stanford’s policy, Martinez cited as a point of guidance settled First Amendment law which “allows many governmental restrictions on heckling to preserve the countervailing interest in free speech.”

Continuing her analysis, Martinez said “a university classroom setting for a guest speaker invited by a student organization is thus a setting where the First Amendment tolerates greater limitations on speech than it would in a traditional public forum….In such a setting, limiting audience participation to signs, questions during a planned Q&A, and a non-disruptive level of audience reaction is appropriate to the nature of the forum.”

In her letter, Martinez responded to a counterargument from some Stanford students that the judge invited the heckling with offensive comments or engagement with protesters. These students misunderstand the policy, explained Martinez, adding that “the policy would not be meaningful to protect the carrying out of public events and the right of attendees to hear what is said if it applied only when a speaker said things protesters in an audience found agreeable.”

Stanford’s Dean apologized for a simple reason: to acknowledge that Duncan’s speech was disrupted. According to her, the apology and Stanford’s policy are not only consistent with the First Amendment, but also California’s Leonard Law, which attempts to ensure students’s speech isn’t trampled on by private colleges, among other institutions.

Martinez also explained further why the administrators had behaved incorrectly.

“The administrator who responds should not insert themselves into debate with their own criticism of the speaker’s views and the suggestion that the speaker reconsider whether what they plan to say is worth saying, for that imposes the kind of institutional orthodoxy and coercion that the policy on Academic Freedom precludes,” Martinez said.

She also pointed out that Stanford Law is not an echo chamber, but a place to train lawyers to act as effective advocates in a society that disagrees about many important issues.

“I believe we cannot function as a law school from the premise that appears to have animated the disruption of Judge Duncan’s remarks,” she said. “The cycle of degenerating discourse won’t stop if we insist that people we disagree with must first behave the way we want them to.”

“Our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is not going to take the form of having the school administration announce institutional positions on a wide range of current social and political issues, make frequent institutional statements about current news events, or exclude or condemn speakers who hold views on social and political issues with whom some or even many in our community disagree,” Martinez continued. “I can think of no circumstance in which giving those in authority the right to decide what is and is not acceptable content for speech has ended well.”

Finally, Martinez’s justification for not punishing individual students was based on the difficulty of determining whose heckling rose to the level that violated the policy. She also cited the actions of Steinbach and the other administrators as sending conflicting signals about whether what was happening was acceptable or not. This, for Martinez, rendered disciplinary sanctions “problematic.”

Reaction to the letter noted how strong Martinez’s response was.

Ilya Shapiro, director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute, called it “a pretty amazing document” and highlighted Martinez’s comment that these future lawyers will “make arguments on behalf of clients whose very lives may depend on their professional skill.”

Judicial Crisis Network president Carrie Severino agreed the response was a strong one, but said: “If Stanford really means what it says, it will fire Tirien Steinbach.”

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