Home News Behind the Story: Free Speech Controversy at Stanford

Behind the Story: Free Speech Controversy at Stanford

by Staff

Stuart Kyle Duncan, a conservative federal appeals court judge appointed by former President Donald J. Trump, visited Stanford Law School last month to speak to students at the invitation of the university’s chapter of the Federalist Society.

That single event created a furor that continues today.

Duncan, who has defended Louisiana’s gay-marriage ban and a North Carolina law restricting transgender people from using their preferred bathrooms, was repeatedly heckled by students and couldn’t speak more than a few words without interruption. When he called for the help of an administrator to restore order, Tirien Steinbach, the associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, said that Duncan’s work had “caused harm” to many people in the room.

Steinbach’s remarks, seen by some as giving tacit approval to the protesters, were recorded and went viral, thrusting questions of campus free speech into the national spotlight once again.

This week, my colleague Vimal Patel wrote about what happened at Stanford, including the recent release of a 10-page memo by Jenny S. Martinez, the law school dean, that supported Duncan’s right to speak on campus and criticized Steinbach’s response. The memo also announced that Steinbach was on leave.

I spoke to Vimal, who covers higher education for The New York Times, about his reporting and how this incident fit into our current high-pitched political environment and understanding of free speech at universities nationwide. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited:

How did you come to this story?

I had kept an eye on the controversy ever since video of Steinbach’s intervention on March 9 went viral. But the story snowballed from there. It became a major cause on the right, with prominent politicians like Ted Cruz and media personalities calling for Steinbach’s firing. By the time Martinez responded with her extraordinary memo, I was already reporting.

As you’ve written, the issue of free speech on college campuses isn’t a new one. Why did this particular incident garner so much attention?

The recorded remarks by Steinbach came at a time when diversity, equity and inclusion jobs are under attack from conservatives. Her intervention felt like a Rorschach test. What did you see? A D.E.I. dean expressing sympathy for students heckling a federal judge and also admonishing him? Or a deft administrator stepping into a challenging situation, calming students down and insisting they listen to the judge?

Many people were quick to condemn Steinbach from the video. But when I actually started reporting, I found a much more complicated back story. I was surprised to hear that she had a good relationship with the head of Stanford’s Federalist Society. And that Nadine Strossen, a free speech crusader, thought that she went out of her way to support free expression.

What is it about this moment that brings such attention to campus free-speech issues?

Many people who are frustrated that these flare-ups ricochet around the web say that controversial speakers deliver talks every day at universities, including law schools, without incident, and that we only hear about the events that go awry. That said, this is an emotionally charged and polarizing moment in U.S. history more broadly, and that’s playing out on college campuses. Passions are especially escalated at law schools because so many of the country’s biggest cultural divisions are legal issues. Roe v. Wade was just overturned. The fight for the rights of gay and transgender people, redistricting and even election-integrity claims all play out in courtrooms.

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