Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Stanford Law School (SLS) Dean Jenny Martinez sent a letter of apology to Judge Kyle Duncan on Saturday after his public complaint regarding the treatment he received during a speech he gave on Thursday at SLS.
Throughout Duncan’s speech, student protesters booed and made various loud comments, frequently drowning out his voice. In fliers put up in advance of the event, protesters called Duncan a right-wing advocate for laws that would harm women, immigrants and LGBTQ+ people. SLS Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tirien Steinbach stepped in less than 30 minutes into his speech after Duncan repeatedly asked for an administrator to help control the audience.
Duncan — a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, covering Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana — told Reuters on Friday that “It would be nice if they reached out to me and said, ‘Gee, we’re sorry.’” Duncan was invited by the Federalist Society — an SLS student group — for a speech on “Guns, COVID and Twitter.”
To begin their apology, Tessier-Lavigne and Martinez wrote that they “apologize for the disruption of [Duncan’s] recent speech at Stanford Law School. As has already been communicated to our community, what happened was inconsistent with our policies on free speech, and we are very sorry about the experience you had while visiting our campus.”
Tessier-Lavigne and Martinez went on to denounce the protesters’ actions.
“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,” they wrote. “Our disruption policy states that students are not allowed to ‘prevent the effective carrying out’ of a ‘public event’ whether by heckling or other forms of interruption.”
In between jeers and disruptions by protestors Duncan often sparred back, sometimes speaking directly to individual audience members.
While leaving the event early due to the disruptions, Duncan said to a protester, “You’re an appalling idiot.” Earlier in his speech, he claimed that the Law School students were in an echo-chamber and amid the protesters’ response to this comment, he said, “In this school, the inmates have gotten control of the asylum.”
Right-wing media backlash over the past three days escalated the situation, bringing more attention to the events. Ed Whelan, a lawyer and Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center — a conservative think tank in Washington D.C. — wrote in one Twitter thread, “With the acquiescence of @StanfordLaw administrators, Stanford law students yesterday shouted down Fifth Circuit judge Stuart Kyle Duncan at a scheduled event.” Adding further publicity to Thursday’s events, Twitter CEO Elon Musk responded with a singular exclamation point to a tweet by Aaron Sibarium, a reporter for conservative publication Washington Free Beacon.
Whelan’s mention of the acquiescence of SLS administrators was a reference to SLS Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tirien Steinbach’s involvement in the speech. Steinbach gave a short speech of her own after Duncan asked for an administrator to come out where she asked Duncan if “the juice was worth the squeeze,” seeming to imply whether Duncan believed his messages were worth the resulting reactions.
At the end of her speech, Steinbach called for protesters to give space for Duncan to speak, saying to the protesters, “You do not need to stay here if this is not where you want to be. You can stay here if this is where you choose to be, but make that choice. If you do choose to stay here, I do think we should give space to hear what Judge Duncan has to say.”
Many have taken offense at Steinbach’s intervention, with some even calling for her firing. The Stanford Review wrote in an article on Saturday, “If Stanford cares about free speech, it must fire any administrator who actively encourages these unruly actions against it.” On Twitter, they simply wrote, “Fire Tirien Steinbach.”
Tessier-Lavigne and Martinez apologized for this incident, writing, “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 ends with a promise to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.
“We are taking steps to ensure that something like this does not happen again. Freedom of speech is a bedrock principle for the law school, the university, and a democratic society, and we can and must do better to ensure that it continues even in polarized times,” they wrote. “With our sincerest apologies again, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Jenny Martinez.”