Free speech and open academic inquiry received unexpectedly powerful defenses this week from a Stanford Law School dean whose earlier statements had been disappointingly tepid. College administrators nationwide should follow her later example.
Dean Jenny Martinez’s March 22 letter to the whole law school came in the wake of the inexcusable behavior of dozens of Stanford Law students loudly and viciously shouting down U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kyle Duncan. The judge was never able to give his prepared remarks at a March 9 event where he was the invited speaker.
Martinez’s letter wasn’t perfect, but it is among the best ones from college administrators in years. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, one of the most avid free-speech organizations in existence, praised Martinez for “strongly re-affirming” free expression principles and for “masterfully countering the common argument that censorship protects marginalized groups from harm.”
FIRE is right. With unyielding directness, the dean wrote that “the First Amendment does not give protestors a ‘heckler’s veto.’ … To the contrary, settled First Amendment law allows many governmental restrictions on heckling to preserve the countervailing interest in free speech.” She provided multiple citations to that effect from both the California and U.S. Supreme Courts, along with direct quotes from leading liberal scholars otherwise sympathetic to left-wing causes but who leave no room for doubt that heckling down a speech is anathema.
Martinez made clear that protests are absolutely welcome, but only “as long as the methods used do not prevent or disrupt the effective carrying out of a University function or approved activity, such as lectures, meetings, interviews, ceremonies … and public events. Moreover, students are encouraged to hold alternative events where they can share their own views without disrupting the invited speaker.”
Martinez didn’t even stop there. She also addressed demands from numerous students to restrict the conservative Federalist Society “or the speakers it can bring to campus.” Such a restriction, she wrote, is “inconsistent not only with freedom of speech but with rights to freedom of association that civil rights lawyers fought hard in the twentieth century to secure.”
This was an important point. Freedom of association is no less a First Amendment right than freedom of speech. Without it, marginalized groups themselves — including the very ones for whom the heckling students claimed to be advocating — would not be able to organize, compare notes, and proselytize for their causes.
In all, the dean’s letter was a ringing defense of First Amendment values and a paean to a university’s particular mission of providing “an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry … [which] encourage[s] the widest diversity of views within its own community.”
The dean announced that the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” administrator who gave Judge Duncan a nasty, six-minute harangue is now “on leave” (although reserving comment on the nature of the leave because it is a “pending personnel matter”).
For various reasons, some better than others but all of them at least explained in admirably open fashion, the dean declined to punish the student hecklers themselves. She made clear, though, that such forbearance will not be extended if anything similar happens again.
Finally, in another move praised by FIRE, Martinez announced that every Stanford law student will be required to complete “mandatory educational programming” on Stanford’s free-speech policies so that there will be absolutely no excuse for future violations.
Granted, Martinez did couch much of her letter in the annoying lingo of faux-sensitive “political correctness,” but that’s a minor distraction. If every college administrator could be this forthright in protecting free inquiry, universities would again be incubators of good citizens instead of spoiled, closed-minded cry bullies.