NY Times Sunday Front: Stanford Law Mob 'Exposes Snags of Free Speech'

April 12th, 2023 5:39 PM

“Stanford Furor Exposes Snags Of Free Speech,” higher education reporter Vimal Patel’s front-page Sunday New York Times report, went to great lengths to give the benefit of the doubt to a Stanford Law school “dean for equity and inclusion,” Tirien Steinbach, who insulted a visiting judge at a Federalist Society speaking event on campus after his talk was sabotaged by a mob of leftist students. Steinbach not only failed to stick up for free speech, she insulted her guest. She was later put on paid leave. Yet the Times came to her defense.

The strange story continued the paper’s ongoing anti-anti-censorship crusade.

Stanford Law School was under extraordinary pressure.

For nearly two weeks, there had been mounting anger over the treatment of a conservative federal judge, whose talk had been disrupted by student hecklers. A video of the fiasco went viral.

An apology to the judge from university officials had not helped quell the anger.

Finally, on March 22, the dean, Jenny S. Martinez, released a lawyerly 10-page memo that rebuked the activists....Free speech groups hailed Dean Martinez for what they said was a stirring defense of free expression.


The question for Stanford and other institutions is whether the memo can ease tensions in this fraught and seemingly intractable political climate. In an era of high-pitched politics, living up to lofty free-speech principles can get messy on the ground.

But Patel doesn’t deliver the promised messiness -- the case still seemed pretty cut and dried that both Steinbach's speech attacking the school's guest, and the student mob, were in the wrong. (Click "Expand" to read:)

Students were particularly upset that, in 2020, as a judge, he had denied the request of a transgender woman who asked the court to refer to her with female pronouns. It was an especially sensitive subject, as many in the law school were still grieving the death of a transgender student last year.

At the event, Judge Duncan was relentlessly heckled and traded barbs with students. He tried to power through his prepared remarks but was unable to speak more than a few words without interruption. He called for the help of an administrator to restore order.

Tirien Steinbach, the associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, stepped to the podium and began six minutes of remarks that would be recorded on video.

She said that, to many people in the room, Judge Duncan’s work had “caused harm.” She asked him, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” That is, was the decision by Judge Duncan to speak worth the division it was causing students?

Her remarks became a signature moment online, condemned for giving tacit approval to the “heckler’s veto.” The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression said that Ms. Steinbach had said the quiet part out loud, to chilling effect.

Not so fast, warned Patel, there's another side to this story. But he doesn't really provide one.

That bare-bones narrative missed a more complicated situation, illustrating the perils of rushing to judgment based on a viral video.

To begin with, Ms. Steinbach had a cordial, productive relationship with the leader of the student-run Federalist Society, Tim Rosenberger Jr.

Ms. Steinbach, who started at Stanford in 2021, said she wanted to expand the role of D.E.I. to include groups like veterans, older students and conservatives. She viewed herself as a bridge builder.

Not convinced yet? Well, here's a whitewashed summary of what Steinbach said:

While the judge was insulted by some of her remarks, Ms. Steinbach also defended free speech. “We believe that the way to address speech that feels abhorrent -- that feels harmful, that literally denies the humanity of people -- that one way to do that is with more speech, and not less,” she said.

That’s not exactly a tolerant “defense” of free speech. Patel does some more defense of Steinbach, forwarding accusations of "an intense right-wing attack" after Martinez's memo. The mob of students is never given a left-wing or even liberal label, but the story is full of "conservative" labels.

To some students, the dean, by not presenting a fuller defense of Ms. Steinbach in her memo, capitulated to an intense right-wing attack.