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Judge Kyle Duncan


Stanford University’s president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, and the dean of its law school, Jenny Martinez, issued a joint apology Saturday to a federal appeals court judge whose speech Thursday was repeatedly heckled by students in the audience.

“We write to apologize for the disruption,” Tessier-Lavigne and Martinez wrote to Judge Kyle Duncan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Duncan was a target because he has a history of anti-LGBT activism. He argued before the U.S. Supreme Court against the constitutionality of same-sex marriage and led efforts to defend state bans on same-sex marriage. When the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of marriage equality, Duncan described the decision as an “abject failure” that “imperils civic peace,” and he argued that the decision “raises a question about the legitimacy of the court.”

The letter from Stanford leaders said, “As has already been communicated to our community, what happened was inconsistent with our policies on free speech, and we are very sorry about the experience you had while visiting our campus. We are very clear with our students that, given our commitment to free expression, if there are speakers they disagree with, they are welcome to exercise their right to protest but not to disrupt the proceedings. Our disruption policy states that students are not allowed to ‘prevent the effective carrying out’ of a ‘public event’ whether by heckling or other forms of interruption. In addition, staff members who should have enforced university policies failed to do so, and instead intervened in inappropriate ways that are not aligned with the university’s commitment to free speech.”

The letter continued, “We are taking steps to ensure that something like this does not happen again. Freedom of speech is a bedrock principle for the law school, the university, and a democratic society, and we can and must do better to ensure that it continues even in polarized times.” The letter did not mention a punishment for those who interrupted the judge’s speech.

The reference to staff members “who should have enforced university policies” is apparently to Tirien Angela Steinbach, associate dean of the law school for diversity, equity and inclusion. She spoke at the speech when Duncan complained about the interruptions and asked for an administrator’s help. In a recording, she said that to many audience members, his decisions “land as an absolute disenfranchisement of the rights” and that “your work has caused harm.” She also said the university wanted to “welcome you” to speak, and the university strongly believed in free speech.

Steinbach did not respond to a request for comment.

On Friday, Martinez wrote to Stanford law students to say that “however well-intentioned, attempts at managing the room in this instance went awry … The way this event unfolded was not aligned with our institutional commitment to freedom of speech.”

The event was sponsored by the Stanford chapter of the Federalist Society. The talk was called “The Fifth Circuit in Conversation with the Supreme Court: COVID, Guns and Twitter.”

Two Stanford law student groups organized the protest, Identity and Rights Affirmers for Trans Equality (IRATE) and Outlaw. They could not be reached for comment but said in public statements that Duncan shouldn’t have been invited to Stanford.

Students called him racist as well in interrupting him.

Reuters reported that Duncan said, “I told [students] this is not going to work in a courtroom, this way of disagreement. Maybe that’s where we are going as a society, but that doesn’t work in my courtroom.”

Duncan told The Washington Free Beacon, “Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m a life-tenured federal judge. What outrages me is that these kids [in the audience] are being treated like dog shit by fellow students and administrators.”

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