Law Schools’ Heckling Trends Show Disturbing Future For The Legal System, Experts Argue

Alexa Schwerha 

  • Law students have repeatedly attempted to shut down speakers on campus that express views they disagree with during the past year, which experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation will have a negative impact on the legal profession.
  • Disruptions have occurred at Stanford, Yale and Georgetown law schools, all of which are elite institutions.
  • “And keep in mind, the students who are encouraged to use tactics like this by administrators with political agendas will take these tactics with them as they enter the professional world,” Speech First President Cherise Trump told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Law schools that permit students to heckle and disrupt speakers fail to impress upon them the importance of free speech rights and could have a negative impact on the future of the legal profession, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

In the past year, protestors have attempted to shut down speakers at Stanford University, Yale University, University of California, San Francisco and Georgetown University because of their political views. If law schools fail to teach students how to respect free speech during their time in school, that will be reflected in the legal profession when the students graduate, experts argue.

“As future lawyers, law students have an ethical obligation to respect the rule of law,” CeCe O’Leary, a Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF) attorney, told the DCNF. “When law schools fail to enforce their own heckler’s veto policies, they abdicate their duty to teach respect for the law.”

Law schools should be “dedicated to resolving disputes through reasoned debate, not through shouting down contrary views,” Eugene Volokh, a law professor at University of California Los Angeles, told the DCNF.

“When we see law students acting that way, especially with impunity, that bodes ill for their future as lawyers, or the future of the legal system more broadly,” he explained.

Last week, Stanford Law School (SLS) students and the school’s Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tirien Steinbach heckled Fifth Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan during a discussion about COVID-19, guns and Twitter. Steinbach responded to Duncan’s call for an administrator to calm the room by asking him to reflect on whether his speech was “worth the pain that this causes and the division” while students shouted phrases including “your racism is showing” and “respect black women.”

“What we saw at Stanford Law school forebodes a concerning future for the rule of law in this country,” Speech First Executive Director Cherise Trump told the DCNF. “The behavior by the disrupters and the apparent encouragement by campus leaders not only normalizes these childish tactics, but it also normalizes the idea that if someone holds a different opinion then they are your political enemy and should be eliminated from the field. This type of thinking is incongruent with American jurisprudence and could seriously threaten the reliability and confidence in our legal system.”

Stanford later apologized for the disruptions, prompting hundreds of students to protest Jenny Martinez, law school dean, by dressing in black and lining the corridors to stare her down. Several student groups rejected the apology and doubled-down on their support for the disruption and for Steinbach’s intervention.

“In veiled language, the law school threw its capable and compassionate administrators who were present at the event, and who interceded productively, under the bus, and expressed an intent to ensure that such disruptions do not occur again,” the Stanford National Lawyers Guild wrote.

The guild said in its letter that the disruption was “justified” because of Duncan’s “abhorrent” behavior.

“It is ironic that Judge Duncan repeatedly criticized protestors for being ‘disrespectful,’” the group wrote. “Judge Duncan’s record, jurisprudence, views, and personal conduct are beyond “disrespectful”: they are as antithetical to the social justice mission of [National Lawyers Guild] as it is possible to be.”

When students are permitted to disrupt speaker events, they are learning that “suppression, rather than reasoned debate, is the right way to resolve disputes,” according to Volokh. Heckling, while unconstitutional, is also a sign that law schools aren’t doing a good enough job at “educating students about their First Amendment rights—both what they include and what they do not include,” O’Leary said.

The First Amendment is a common hot-button issue when it comes to proposed laws. New York, for example, considered a law that would have censored “hateful conduct” on social media, but it was shot down by the district court in February.

The FBI toed the line of First Amendment restrictions when it colluded with Twitter to censor specific accounts and may have infringed on users’ rights, experts previously told the DCNF.

The trend of heckling and disregarding free speech rights goes beyond Stanford, and examples can be pinpointed at several other universities nationwide.

In March 2022, students at the the formerly-known University of California, Hastings College of Law, now UC San Francisco, heckled conservative legal scholar Ilya Shapiro by shouting and banging their hands on the table to drown him out. The protest, which violated the school’s event policy prohibiting disruptions, came in response to a tweet Shapiro made in January 2022 criticizing President Joe Biden’s promise to select a black woman as his Supreme Court nominee, after which Georgetown University placed him on academic leave.

Georgetown law students held a sit-in protest soon after to demand Shapiro be terminated, as well as reparations including a place for students to cry, the National Review reported.

The frequent disruptions “are symptoms of a deeper problem of ideological uniformity at most law schools, and an intolerance for dissenting (usually right-of-center) viewpoints,” Bill Jacobson, founder of conservative non-profit Legal Insurrection and director of the securities law clinic at Cornell University, told the DCNF.

Surveys find that students on college campuses are afraid to voice their opinions on campus for fear of retaliation by peers or faculty members, according to a survey conducted by free speech watchdog Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). Broken down, the results revealed that conservative students are more likely than their liberal peers to feel like they can’t speak freely.

“Any law student who disagrees with woke DEI policies or activities on campus is completely silenced out of fear of being shouted down or targeted,” Trump added. “And keep in mind, the students who are encouraged to use tactics like this by administrators with political agendas will take these tactics with them as they enter the professional world. They will become attorneys, Supreme Court clerks, judges, lawmakers, and advisors.”

More than 100 students protested a free speech panel at Yale Law School in March 2022 that featured Monica Miller, American Humanist Association legal director, and Kristen Waggoner, president of the conservative legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom.

“Free speech is essential to a free society. It curbs gov’t power. Lawyers must engage with people & ideas they dislike,” Waggoner wrote in a Monday Twitter thread. “We can’t have a working justice system if advocates choose bullying & intimidation over logic & persuasion. Yet this is what some law schools teach & model.

Public universities are bound by the First Amendment while many private universities, such as Stanford, “promise First Amendment-style free speech rights,” Haley Gluhanich, FIRE program officer, told the DCNF. These policies, however, are not always enforced.

“The problem is that these policies are not enforced because the vast majority of disruptions and shout-downs target conservative speakers who are unpopular with administrators and faculty,” Jacobson told the DCNF. “Empty words and platitudes from administrators make the problem worse, because it sends a message that no matter the policy, disruptions of conservative speakers have no negative consequences. I doubt this attitude of indifference would happen if the speakers being disrupted were left-of-center.”

Gluhanich said that schools that fail to protect speech “would only further encourage hecklers to use such tactics to stifle expression they disagree with, which will lead to fewer speakers, fewer ideas being shared, and fewer conversations.”

“When law schools not only allow, but in some cases encourage, their students to heckle and shout down speakers, they embarrass the entire legal profession,” Kimberly Hermanm, SLF general counsel, told the DCNF.

Georgetown, Yale and Stanford University did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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