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“Is the juice worth squeezing?” While it may sound like hipster gibberish, it could very well turn out to be the epitaph for free speech at Stanford University. Those were the words of wisdom from Stanford DEI Dean Tirien Steinbach at one of the most shameful times in modern legal education.
For years now, free speech has been in free fall on our college campuses. Many faculty members have effectively purged conservatives and libertarians from their ranks in what has become an academic echo chamber. It is common for conservative speakers to be blocked or canceled with the support of faculty and students.
However, what happened at Stanford this week shocked even those of us who have questioned this orthodoxy for years.
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The Stanford Federal Society invited Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to speak on campus. It is an excellent opportunity to hear the views of one of the country’s most senior judicial officers. Some students are also likely to apply to Duncan for a distinguished clerkship, so this was an opportunity to make an important connection.
However, liberal students decided that allowing a conservative judge to speak on campus was unacceptable, and prepared to boo him. It was reminiscent of an equally shameful event at Yale Law School, when another conservative speaker was similarly canceled — law students then objected to campus police being present.
At this event, Duncan planned to speak on the topic: “The Fifth Circuit in Conversation with the Supreme Court: COVID, Guns and Twitter.” A video shows the students blocking Duncan from speaking, and the judge called for an administrator to allow the event to continue.
Dean Steinbach then took the stage and, instead of demanding that the students allow the event to continue, Steinbach launched a raucous attack on the judge for trying to be heard despite such objections.
Steinbach explained “I had to write something because I feel so uncomfortable up here. And I’m not saying that out of sympathy, I’m just saying that I’m deeply, deeply uncomfortable.”
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One would expect the next line to be a condemnation of those who refuse to let opposing views be heard in law school. Instead, it turns out that it was free speech itself that was so stressful and painful for the dean.
Steinbach said, “It’s uncomfortable to say that for a lot of people here, your work has caused harm.” After a perfunctory nod to free speech, Steinbach proceeded to gut it to the delight of law students.
He continued “again I ask, is the juice worth squeezing?” “Is it worth the pain this is causing, the division this is causing? You have something so incredibly important to say about Twitter and guns and Covid that it’s worth this impact on dividing these people.”
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It’s a familiar argument to many of us in higher education. Free speech is now often portrayed as harmful and threatening to community safety. Steinbach suggested that Justice Duncan should be ashamed for trying to speak out when others oppose his views, including herself clearly.
Dean Steinbach then encouraged people who opposed Duncan to walk out in protest. Many did. That wasn’t a problem. Trouble was coming to the event to disrupt it. What is critical is that Steinbach was asked to step forward as an administrator to speak on behalf of the law school, not another protester.
The response to Steinbach’s shameful intervention was also well known. MSNBC regular Elie Mystal defended the law students by blocking the judge from speaking. He called it conservative “victimization” and whining simply because students are speaking out.
Mystal is the Nation magazine’s “justice correspondent” and writes for Above the Law, a prominent anti-free speech website. He is known for racist attacks on black conservatives and has called the Constitution “garbage.”
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Despite his incendiary history, I would be the first to object to conservatives shouting down Mystal or preventing him from speaking. However, liberals insist that preventing others from speaking is an exercise of free speech.
Cancellation campaigns are now commonplace at schools ranging from Yale to Northwestern to Georgetown. Stopping others from speaking is not an exercise of free speech. It is the very antithesis of free speech.
However, the faculty has backed such claims. CUNY Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed just how far this trend has come. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman stopped by to talk about “the importance of free speech,” Bilek insisted that disrupting free speech was free speech. (Bilek later recused herself and resigned).
Even student newspapers have declared dissenting speech outside free speech protections. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-lifers and knocked down their screen.
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Stanford must now decide whether the “juice” of free speech is worth the “squeezing” of the mob.
This unpleasant sap that Steinback mocks is the very thing that defines and sustains higher education.
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