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Renewing free speech at law schools

Our legal system depends on lawyers who can face off with civility

The Yale University campus in New Haven, Conn. Associated Press/Photo by Ted Shaffrey

Renewing free speech at law schools
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Two years ago, I wrote about how a mob of students at Yale Law School had turned what should have been a unifying panel event into a chaotic altercation. It was a jarring experience I’ll never forget. The event featured me, a Christian attorney, alongside a progressive atheist attorney who, despite having a vastly different worldview from my own, shared an earnest commitment to free speech.

Yet rather than listen to what we had to say, students hurled obscenities and insults at us, banged on walls, and even tried to physically intimidate and threaten others. It was reported that their behavior disrupted nearby classes, exams, and faculty meetings. As the event concluded and police escorted us off campus, I had a sobering realization: These future lawyers, judges, and C-suite executives being trained at Yale believe that mob intimidation and suppression of speech are legitimate tools of influence.

While I’m thankful to have been back to Yale since then under more peaceful circumstances, this was by no means an isolated incident. About a year later, federal judge Kyle Duncan gained national attention after facing similar hostility from students at Stanford Law. When hecklers prevented him from finishing his lecture, he asked for an administrator to step in. She did. But instead of reproving the students, she directed her fire at the judge, accusing him of “harm” and asking if the “juice” of coming to campus was “worth the squeeze.”

Those who regularly visit law schools or work with law students have been acutely aware of the crisis of free speech on campus, but these incidents finally set off national alarm bells.

Universities are meant to be the place where ideas are tested, refined, and allowed to stand on their own merits—not through censorship or intimidation. What’s more, our legal system depends on lawyers engaging opposing views in civil but rigorous debate. The courtroom is a place of controlled conflict, where argument meets argument to expose the truth and achieve justice. If tomorrow’s lawyers and judges see no value in hearing and engaging opposing views, our system is headed for dire straits—and our law schools will have facilitated the rot.

Thankfully, the American Bar Association is taking initial steps to address the problem. In February, in response to these incidents, the ABA’s policymaking body approved a new policy requiring all ABA-accredited law schools to adopt and enforce policies that “encourage and support the free expression of ideas.” These campus policies must protect the rights of faculty, staff, and students to communicate controversial or unpopular ideas while safeguarding robust debate, demonstrations, and peaceful protests. Schools are also required to bar disruptions that would hinder free expression or hinder law school functions or activities.

Our nation is in a pivotal moment when it comes to censorship. Government officials have grown increasingly brazen in their attempts to silence and punish views they dislike.

The ABA left no doubt as to why it felt this move was necessary. The authors of the policy noted that “effective legal education and the development of the law require the free, robust, and uninhibited sharing of ideas reflecting a wide range of viewpoints.” They added: “Concerns about civility and mutual respect, however, do not justify barring discussion of ideas because they are controversial or even offensive or disagreeable to some.”

These are heartening words coming from the ABA. We should hope that they lead to real and tangible changes at U.S. law schools to protect the rights of all voices to be heard.

Our nation is in a pivotal moment when it comes to censorship. Government officials have grown increasingly brazen in their attempts to silence and punish views they dislike. To take one of the worst examples, 22 states and more than 100 cities now have laws on the books that restrict counselors from talking to minors about gender if they want help living consistent with their sex.

“Drag queen story hour” has sadly become a trend at public libraries, but in California, one library decided to shut down a public discussion that took a different view—that men shouldn’t compete in women’s sports.

In New York, state officials have actively pressured private groups to not do business with the NRA. Even the Biden administration has engaged in gross acts of censorship. Evidence shows that Biden officials pressured powerful tech companies to suppress views the administration didn’t like on climate change, abortion, and COVID-19.

There will always be conflicting views in a free society, but one of the great blessings of free speech is that it allows truth to rise to the top when different views meet in a rational, open, rigorous debate. And history shows that nothing good comes from censorship. It only leads to tyranny, oppression, and loss of open access to the truth.

If free speech is going to survive in the West, our future leaders must learn to engage in persuasion rather than intimidation and cancel culture. Students must learn that more speech, not less, is what helps us seek truth and leads to social progress.

Let’s hope the ABA’s new policy drives that realization home at Yale, Stanford, and beyond.

Kristen Waggoner

Kristen Waggoner is CEO, president, and general counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom.


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