At Stanford, a teachable moment on civil discourse is squandered

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS)

The ongoing controversy at Stanford University Law School over the student shout-down of a conservative speaker underscores precisely how progressive cancel culture is helping feed exaggerated Republican narratives about progressivism run amok. Republicans are just as guilty of silencing opposing views, as was immediately evident last week in the Tennessee legislature’s expulsion of two Black lawmakers who dared to speak out against the guns used in a Nashville school mass shooting.

What distinguishes the Stanford case is that it occurred in an environment dedicated to the civil debate of diametrically opposing views. In law school as well as in the courts where those law students ultimately will practice, the whole idea is to present the best case possible in hopes of persuading a jury and/or judge. Self-righteous Stanford students instead opted to yell over their invited speaker to deny him the right to be heard. This was, in a microcosm, a glimpse of where America is heading unless cooler heads prevail.

Stanford University Campus, Palo Alto, California. (Dreamstime/TNS)

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On March 9, conservative federal appeals court Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan attempted to address a packed seminar room full of Stanford law students. Progressives were upset because Duncan was a guest of the student chapter of the conservative Federalist Society. He had defended a Louisiana ban on gay marriage as well as a North Carolina law requiring transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth.

Duncan was barely able to get out a few sentences before being heckled loudly. He stopped and started repeatedly, finally appealing to someone in the faculty to intervene. Instead, law school Associate Dean Tirien Steinback took the podium and, as protesters cheered, began lecturing Duncan about the “harm” his rulings have caused. It was only after a lengthy dressing-down that she reminded students of the importance of listening and letting guests speak. She told them they could leave if they didn’t want to listen, and about half or more of the audience marched out.

This should have been a teachable moment, but in the opposite way that Steinbach used it. (She’s now on leave.)

Law school is supposed to be a place where students immerse themselves not only in the fine points of the law but also how to use their best rhetorical tools to win an argument. In court, heckling the other side — or the judge — would yield a swift contempt citation. Sometimes lawyers have to represent clients whom they personally regard as reprehensible. Those clients still deserve the best defense the lawyer can provide.

Law school Dean Jenny Martinez apparently now recognizes how badly Steinbach missed the moment. Martinez apologized to Duncan and stated in a March 22 letter that although she agreed with the protesters’ sentiments, their behavior was “incompatible with the training that must be delivered in a law school.”

It’s also incompatible with the civil discourse that’s required for this democracy’s survival.

— From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS).