Cynthia M. Allen: When a judge is ridiculed for speaking on campus, like at Stanford, it’s time for action

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Sen. Ted Cruz is known for having strong opinions, many of which are needlessly bombastic; some of which are best ignored.

But that’s not the case with the Republican’s ideas about how Texas legal entities might deal with recent law school graduates, namely those whose years of expensive legal education appear to amount to little other than learning how to heckle campus speakers with whom they disagree.

Indeed, Cruz’s letter to the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas and the chair of the Texas Board of Law Examiners, suggesting that recent Stanford Law School graduates be made to answer, when seeking entrance to the Texas bar, whether they participated in the harassment of a federal circuit court judge this month, is spot on.

In the absence of a better idea, it is also entirely worth considering.

The suggestion comes in response to the most recent in a maddening and seemingly endless series of anti-free speech incidents on elite college campuses.

In this latest event, federal appellate Judge Kyle Duncan, a Trump-appointee, who had been invited to speak before the Stanford Law School chapter of the Federalist Society, was subjected to profanities, personal insults and vulgarities. The disruption meant he was unable to complete his prepared remarks.

Video (and separate audio) of the event shows students hurling insults like “scumbag” and “liar” and holding signs with slogans about the judge so crass they are unworthy of repeating.

If you didn’t know that this was one of the most prestigious law schools in the nation, you could easily mistake it for a street corner gathering of junior high school students.

But the student interruptions were only one act in the circus that unfolded in Palo Alto, California, on March 9.

When an understandably exasperated Duncan requested help from school administrators, who were apparently present but to this point as useless as potted plants, Tirien Steinbach, the law school’s associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, intervened.

This should surprise no one who is even remotely aware of the role such highly-paid administrators play at our nation’s elite institutions: Steinbach took to the lectern and read a prepared statement that validated the students’ claims of emotional harm caused by Duncan’s presence.

At the risk of sliding into whataboutism, it is a worthy exercise to consider how an administrator would handle conservative protesters were they to lob insults (think, “baby-killer” or “abortion-lover”) at Justice Sonia Sotomayor, for example. But no such corollary yet exists.

Steinbach said she was “deeply uncomfortable” with Duncan’s appearance, and she pointedly and repeatedly asked him if his presence on campus was worth the “harm”, “pain” and disruption it caused her community: “Is the juice worth the squeeze,” was her banal refrain.

Eventually, she asked students who wished to listen to allow Duncan to speak and returned the podium to the bewildered judge.

But the damage was complete.

With administrators like Steinbach, the students’ behavior towards Duncan, unfortunately, makes a lot more sense.

Steinbach’s remarks were recorded and may also be viewed; an endeavor worth the 10 minutes it takes to watch if you seek a window into what passes for elite legal education these days.

That brings us back to Cruz and his remedy for such flagrant violations of free speech.

In his letter, Cruz asks that “in assessing the character and fitness of new members of the bar,” those in positions of authority “exercise particular care and caution in regard to those that engaged in the harassment of Judge Duncan.” (Although, Duncan is hardly the only jurist to have endured such pillory.)

He even suggests that students who participated in the harassment of Duncan be asked to participate in a remedial training course or submit a letter of apology.

Whether or not such redress is sufficient or effective remains to be seen.

I prefer the approach of Duncan’s colleague, Judge James Ho, who is refusing to hire clerks from Yale Law School, not so much on account of its students, but its administration, which has a particular penchant for cancel culture.

Whatever the approach, something drastic needs to be done.

As Cruz correctly explains: “Those that wish to join our ranks should likewise be respectful of their fellow legal practitioners and the opinions they hold.”

If they aren’t, how will they ever defend people with whom they disagree?