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Students walk on the Stanford University campus in Stanford, Calif, March 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)
Students walk on the Stanford University campus in Stanford, Calif, March 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

An appalling event took place at Stanford Law School last week. Federal Judge Kyle Duncan had been invited to speak by the Federalist Society law student organization.  When Judge Duncan was not permitted to speak due to heckling, he asked for an administrator to be summoned. The administrator who showed up was Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tirien Steinbach.

She proceeded to verbally attack Judge Duncan.

She ended with an invocation of Judge Duncan’s right to be heard, but that came after her very strong denunciation, and her openly questioning whether Stanford’s free speech code was worth defending given the harm she believed Judge Duncan would perpetrate if he were allowed to speak.

The reaction of Stanford’s administrators to this event was inaccurate and inadequate.

In her message to the Stanford Law School community, Dean Jenny Martinez, said that, “However well-intentioned, attempts at managing the room in this instance went awry.”

The comment “however well-intentioned,” conveyed Dean Martinez’ sentiment that Associate Dean Steinbach’s comments may have been well-intentioned. The circumstances argue otherwise.

The proper sphere for such remarks as Associate Dean Steinbach made would have been in a debate, to which Judge Duncan would have agreed in advance. Instead, Associate Dean Steinbach was summoned explicitly as a member of the administration of the university, called in to quell a disturbance. She betrayed that role in her choice to denounce Judge Duncan. Her action was not redeemed by her concluding remarks that Stanford’s free speech code compelled allowing Judge Duncan to speak. She had already breached her duty to protect free speech on campus by weighing in against a speaker based on the anticipated content of his speech, and under the false flag of being an administrator not a participant in the debate.

The students who attempted to prevent Judge Duncan from speaking were violating the most important rule at a university: that differing viewpoints be allowed to be heard.  Stanford’s President Tessier-Lavigne and Dean Martinez’ letter recognized that fact but failed to promise any action to be taken against the students in silencing Judge Duncan. Instead, the passive voice was used in their letter: “In this instance, tempers flared along multiple dimensions.”

This is a non-apology, akin to the frequently used “mistakes were made.”

Here is a more appropriate response. “Students who attempted to prevent an invited speaker from presenting his views, having previously been advised of the free speech code in this specific instance, nevertheless intentionally breached that code. For their intentional actions, they will each be suspended for one semester from Stanford University.”

As for Associate Dean Steinbach, President Tessier-Lavigne should commence proceedings, with all due process, to resolve whether her actions were so inconsistent with her official position that she should no longer be employed at Stanford.

Without strong action of this kind, this lesson will be added to so many instances already apparent at major US universities and law schools: the left is entitled to free speech, but not the right, and that some university administrators are comfortable with that double standard.

Tom Campbell is a former professor of law at Stanford University. He is currently a professor of law and a professor of economics at Chapman University.