Judge Kyle Duncan’s visit to the Stanford Law School (SLS) Thursday was interrupted by questions and booing from audience members who protested the Federalist Society’s (FedSoc) decision to bring Duncan to campus.
The protesters’ actions were condemned in an SLS statement. In an email to SLS obtained by The Daily from SLS Dean Jenny Martinez, Martinez wrote about the event, “The way this event unfolded was not aligned with our institutional commitment to freedom of speech. The school is reviewing what transpired and will work to ensure protocols are in place so that disruptions of this nature do not occur again, and is committed to the conduct of events on terms that are consistent with the disruption policy and the principles of free speech and critical inquiry they support.”
FedSoc, a conservative and libertarian law student group, invited Duncan — a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, covering Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana — for a discussion on “Guns, Covid and Twitter.”
According to fliers put up across campus by activists citing the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights — the U.S.’s oldest civil rights coalition — as a judge and lawyer, Duncan has been a right-wing advocate for laws that would harm women, immigrants and LGBTQ+ people. The fliers cite examples of his attempts to deny same-sex couples adoption rights and how he served as lead trial and appellate counsel in a case that stopped transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice at state institutions.
Duncan did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.
Members of law school student coalition Identity and Rights Affirmers for Trans Equality (IRATE) and organization Outlaw led the protest after FedSoc denied their request for Duncan’s speech to be canceled or moved to Zoom. The request was signed by over 90 law school students, according to emails obtained by The Daily.
“While acknowledging your right to freely associate with speakers and gain mentorship from those you choose, we are writing to express specific concerns about the effect of bringing this person into our campus community,” the email request read. “As a practitioner and a judge, he has repeatedly and proudly threatened healthcare and basic rights for marginalized communities.”
FedSoc did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.
The protest took place both before and during the lecture in the entryway of the classroom building and inside the lecture hall, which was made up mostly of IRATE and Outlaw members. Before the speech, protesters shouted call and response chants including “When our trans neighbors are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”
Denni Arnold JD ’24, a lead organizer of the protest and member of IRATE, and other protesters held a “safe space” for LGBTQ+ students before the lecture where they made posters and painted trans flags on their cheeks. The posters were brought into the lecture hall and held up in Duncan’s eyeline during his talk.
In his opening remarks, Duncan addressed these posters and chants. “I’m not blind — I can see this outpouring of contempt,” Duncan said. With audience interruptions continuing throughout the speech, he later said “In this school, the inmates have gotten control of the asylum.”
Not long after this comment, and less than 30 minutes into the speech as a whole, Duncan asked, “Do you think this is an appropriate way to receive a guest?”
After requesting that an administrator be brought out, Duncan eventually ceded the floor to SLS Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Steinbach who had to repeatedly tell Duncan that she was, in fact, the administrator.
“For many people here, your work has caused harm,” Steinbach said to Duncan. She asked him twice, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” appearing to question whether Duncan believed his messages were worth this reaction. The protesters snapped their fingers in approval.
Not everyone appreciated her comments though. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) — a non-profit civil rights group that aims to protect free speech at U.S. colleges and universities — sent a letter sent to Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne on Friday condemning some of the protesters’ and SLS administrator’s actions. They expressed their “deep concern regarding Steinbach’s temporary removal of Duncan from the podium — against his wishes — to offer commentary appearing to promote censorship. Dean Steinbach pinballs between praising free speech, accusing Judge Duncan of ‘harm,’ and asking him if what he has to say is important enough to justify upsetting students.”
The Daily has reached out to Steinbach for comment.
The protesters, however, say they saw Duncan and Steinbach’s interaction differently, taking objection to the way Duncan spoke to the Dean.
“The way that he was treating Dean Steinbach shows the way he treats people who are different from him, which is [people who are not] not a cis-het white man. That is all we need to know,” protester Hayden Henderson JD ’24 said, saying that Duncan was ignoring Steinbach when she spoke to him.
FIRE said in their letter that, “When hecklers disrupt planned speeches on a university campus, they not only infringe a speaker’s right to deliver their message, but also the rights of anyone in the Stanford community who wishes to receive that message.”
They added that “not all protest during a speech is sufficiently disruptive” but due to the level of disruption at this event, “Stanford must use all the resources at its disposal to prevent this pernicious form of mob censorship.”
Tessier-Lavigne has not made a public comment, but Martinez wrote in her email, “Tempers flared along multiple dimensions. In such situations, an optimal outcome involves de-escalation that allows the speaker to proceed and for counter-speech to occur in an alternative location or in ways that are non-disruptive. However well-intentioned, attempts at managing the room in this instance went awry.”
The protesters’ disruptive actions were specifically inspired by the fact that Duncan was brought “into the classroom building where our students have to go every day to be able to get this degree and participate in this community,” Arnold said.
“It’s a sign of immense disrespect for them to invite him into this inner sanctum when he has not only expressed views but has actively, as a lawyer and as a judge, worked to further a homophobic and transphobic agenda,” Arnold said.
Other protesters echoed Arnold’s concern about having Duncan on campus.
Antar Thiam JD ’25 agreed with Arnold’s points and said, “I’m here for the students who feel marginalized by this and made to feel unsafe by their classmates who are emboldening narratives of hate and prejudice.”
A previous version of this article included an editing-introduced copy error that resulted in a minor misquote of Kyle Duncan. The Daily regrets this error.