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Judge Duncan’s Struggle Session Shows Why We Need Fiercer Protection Of Free Speech

The Stanford disruptors’ objective was to destroy American civil society and replace it with leftist authoritarianism, preventing dissent.


The culture of free speech that for so long characterized American academia is dead. Increasingly, struggle sessions and violent eruptions are how the nation’s best and brightest choose to handle the ideas, individuals, and situations that make them uncomfortable.

Earlier this month, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kyle Duncan was invited by the Stanford Federalist Society to their law school to give a talk titled “Covid, Guns, and Twitter.” What ensued is what has become the norm. A coalition of the dysgenic and well-dressed filled a lecture hall to shout down and demean a federal judge while a school diversity administrator chastised him with prepared remarks.

Disagreement is OK and clearly would have been welcomed by Duncan, but when students feel emboldened to tell a federal judge, “We hope your daughters get raped,” as one individual allegedly did, a course correction is desperately needed.

On Friday, Duncan addressed this very topic in a talk titled “Free Speech and Legal Education In Our Liberal Democracy” at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government. 

“This is a talk about another talk,” Duncan quipped to inform those in the audience who were unaware that he would be, in part, discussing the incident at Stanford.

In a general defense of student protests, Duncan stated, “It’s a great country where you can harshly criticize federal judges and nothing bad will happen to you. … The students at Stanford and other elite law schools swim in an ocean of free speech. … Has any group of people ever been so privileged?” 

Continuing, the judge referenced a memo published on March 22 by the dean of Stanford Law, Jenny Martinez, in which she condemned the disruptions and “threatening messages directed at members of [the Stanford Law] community” and pledged to adopt stricter policies regarding event disruption.

Martinez’s memo specifically contrasts student protests with malicious disruptions, noting that universities, as institutions, have unique obligations to curtail the latter in the pursuit of academic freedom through the enforcement of conduct codes and administrative policies. And as Duncan noted, a rigid commitment to the cause of academic freedom is absolutely vital to both the preservation of the university system and American society. 

The universities that, at one point in time, were renowned for their unyielding commitment to free speech and the relentless pursuit of excellence in all things, to this day — despite the diminishing quality of graduates — still churn out leaders in every single sector.

Noting the undeniable trend of woke radicalization among young people in elite universities and the threat it poses to the maintenance of civil order and liberal democracy, Duncan asked, “What would happen if the cast of mind in that Stanford classroom becomes the norm in legislatures, in courts, in universities, in boardrooms, in business, in churches?”

“We must resist this at all costs,” Duncan continued. “Otherwise, we will cease to have [the] rule of law.”

Toward the end of her memo, Martinez also ruled out disciplining the individuals who disrupted Duncan’s lecture at Stanford Law, as it would be onerous to discern which students “crossed the line into disruptive heckling while others engaged in constitutionally protected non-disruptive protest” and that university administrators sent “conflicting signals about whether what was happening was acceptable or not.”

Instead, the offending students — along with the rest of the law school’s student body — will be required to attend a “mandatory half-day session in spring quarter for all students on the topic of freedom of speech and the norms of the legal profession.” 

In the final moments of his speech at Notre Dame, Duncan mentioned he was “cautiously encouraged” by this measure as it indicated Stanford Law’s leadership was in some form committed to fighting for the foundational principles of American academia. He also noted that the point of the struggle session wasn’t purely to intimidate or dissuade him. After all, he’s a federal judge — he has life tenure; his future is secure. 

The point of heckling Duncan, denying him a chance to make his case, and even wishing rape upon his children was to make an example out of him and to intimidate the students who invited him to speak. The disruptors want to destroy what is left of American civil society and replace it with an even more omnipresent woke authoritarianism, further preventing the dissemination of dissent. In order to accomplish this, they need future generations of leaders — their classmates — to be afraid, so they jeer and they threaten. 

This ethos, one that is undeniably a well-established, if not the dominant, worldview on American campuses, cannot be remedied through scolding. Half-day sessions “on the topic of freedom of speech and the norms of the legal profession” might knock some sense into a couple of dozen Stanford Law students, but what about every other campus in the U.S.? 

Days after the incident at Stanford Law, militant Antifa groups descended upon the University of California, Davis, in an attempt to prevent Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative student organization Turning Point USA, from speaking on campus. Prior to the event, Gary May, the chancellor of UC Davis, circulated a video claiming Kirk “advocated for violence against transgender individuals.” Ultimately, the militants were unsuccessful in their attempts, but unlike at Stanford, the disruptors attempted violence and destroyed public property in the pursuit of denying an individual’s right to free speech.

How much longer can we continue to delude ourselves about free speech? There are, to be sure, legal protections for speech, but the leftists who control the institutions where these protections are most needed (academia, Big Tech, et al.)  actively eschew and chip away at them in collaboration with the federal government.

A more muscular approach to protect the speech of Americans is needed. 

In 2019, President Donald Trump issued an executive order requiring American universities “to foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate [ ] through compliance with the First Amendment” in order to access specific federal funds

But even this, as we can see, didn’t — rather, it couldn’t — address the underlying ideological issues at play. 

Sure, threatening to cut off federal grants might encourage university administrators to be more vigilant in their defense of (or less hostile in their attacks on) free speech. But, at the end of the day, the left controls these institutions and interprets “free speech” in a way that is fundamentally at odds with the American founding and the First Amendment; speech must be contained within their preferred paradigm, or else it and anything descending from it is an affront to their very existence and must be eradicated.

Back at Stanford Law, Tirien Steinbach, the diversity administrator who chastised Duncan, has been put on leave, and per Martinez’s memo, an explicit role of other Stanford Law administrators moving forward “will be to ensure that university rules on disruption of events will be followed, and all staff will receive additional training in that regard.”

So perhaps Duncan is right to be somewhat optimistic.

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