When a federal appellate judge speaks at a major law school, he should expect tough questions from a learned audience. He should not expect to be shouted down. When he tries to speak but is heckled, jeered and disrupted, he should expect a university administrator to step in, read the students the riot act and restore order. He shouldn’t expect that administrator to sympathize with the disruptive students and let the trouble continue, as the feckless bureaucrat at Stanford Law School did.
Her shameful behavior is hardly unique. It’s characteristic of mid-level bureaucrats hired to push “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” at universities across the country. They show very little concern for free speech, alternative views or robust debate. That’s a very big problem since those are the very essence of higher education in a democracy.
These metastasizing DEI bureaucracies endow political ideologues with unchecked power over students’ lives and campus activities. The episode at Stanford shows how they use it. That needs to be fixed. One path to doing that (and lowering the cost of higher education, now encumbered by top-heavy administrative structures) is to abolish the entire DEI apparatus.
The victim at Stanford was federal appellate judge Kyle Duncan and all the students who came to hear him. True, the university later apologized, but that’s just cheap talk unless it is followed by serious actions against the disruptive students and the administrator who failed in her basic responsibility. Of that, we have heard nothing. Only the naive expect much better from Stanford (or Yale, Harvard, Columbia and dozens more). Stanford students are so committed to their illiberal views, so cloaked in moral righteousness, that they actually protested the dean even issuing an apology.
“Hecklers’ Vetoes” like this would be bad enough if they were rare. They aren’t, even at law schools, where an appreciation of the First Amendment should be foundational. Such disruptions would be even more prevalent if these institutions invited speakers whose views challenged their students. They seldom do.
Yet intellectual challenges — from professors, invited speakers, fellow students and assigned readings — are essential to a good education. That point was put perfectly by Hanna Holborn Gray, a distinguished historian who once headed the University of Chicago. “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think,” she said. “Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.” The hecklers’ veto rejects her profound insight. So do the administrators who tolerate it.
It shouldn’t take a PhD to understand why Professor Gray’s point is vital to higher education. It shouldn’t take a legal education to understand why free speech is vital to our democracy. It is essential for students, faculty and administrators to understand that value and to go beyond an abstract understanding and implement it in practice. That means students don’t have to attend speeches if they don’t want to, but they have no right to prevent others from attending or listening to them. That means students can demonstrate their opposition to a speaker outside the auditorium, but not inside. That means they are welcome to hold their own events, but not to block others from holding theirs. That means they should never prevent an invited speaker from making her case and never prevent her audience from listening and reaching their own, independent conclusions. That means students, faculty, and administrators who cross those red lines are undermining basic values in higher education and should face serious consequences.
Fortunately, there is a straightforward way to stop this mischief, at least in law schools, and to underscore the importance of free speech on campus. If students are found to have disrupted a speaker (after a fair hearing, in which they can defend themselves), they should face a simple penalty: disclosure.
Disclosure means that information should be included in a student’s record and available to anyone who legitimately seeks it. If a law firm requests the student’s record, for example, the firm should be informed that the student was found guilty of obstructing free speech on campus, in violation of the speaker’s First Amendment rights and the university’s own rules. The same disclosure should be provided to state bar associations, which seek those records as part of their licensing requirements. Prospective employers and bar associations can use that information as they see fit.
The university should let students know these rules and expectations in advance. They should be stated clearly in the students’ letters of acceptance. They should be told that, if they come to this university, they cannot disrupt events on campus and will face serious consequences if they do. That point should be repeated during orientation sessions and enforced by disciplinary committees.
The goal is deterrence, not punishment. In a better world, that threat wouldn’t be necessary to prevent the heckler’s veto. Students wouldn’t need it to behave like decent citizens in a democracy. They would have internalized these fundamental principles long ago. Since some students clearly have not, they need to understand that bad behavior comes with bad consequences.
The simplest, most effective consequence is transparency. Let anyone who seeks their academic records know what a disciplinary board has found. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, “Depend upon it, sir. It would concentrate their minds wonderfully.”