It seems to be an epidemic. A conservative speaker is invited to give a talk at a woke liberal U.S. law school campus. The speaker is interrupted by protests. Varying accounts of whether the speaker was able to speak, the level of disruption, the administration’s response, and all the hilarity that ensued follow. In the end, the speaker claims they were canceled, and the college is portrayed as a bastion of wokeness and against free speech. What follows is the list of incidents, what they might have in common, and my thoughts about why they keep happening.
In this column, I will not be defending the protestors. Nor will I be defending the administrations. Nor will I be defending the speakers. I’m here to tell you about how the game is being played. And the impact of the game on the participants and beyond.
The List Of Interrupted Speeches At U.S. Law Schools
The first portion of the game is the overestimation of how often it occurs. There are many student organization speeches and talks on any given day. They are rarely interrupted, even when familiar and famous faces appear. However, it does happen that events are protested. It also is the case that some events are disrupted.
For purposes of discourse, I will call the protestors who interrupt “speech disruptors” or “disruptors” to separate them out from other forms of protest.
What follows is a list of times a speaker has been interrupted at a U.S. Law School in the past five years. This list does not include disinvitations or protests that occurred in a place different from where the speaker was speaking. I do not warrant that it is a complete list. But it’s all I could find. I asked on Twitter and Mastodon for help with this list many times, by the way. If you follow me on those platforms and start posting “You missed one!” I’m going to assume you just held on to it.
Incident 1: Just recently (or in Twitter time light-years), Judge Duncan of the Fifth Circuit was invited to speak at Stanford Law School. The title of his talk was “The Fifth Circuit in Conversation with the Supreme Court: Covid, Guns, and Twitter.” This was a student chapter Federalist Society event. You probably heard about this recently, well, everywhere. There’s plenty of blame to go around, including with the judge. Stanford’s president apologized to the judge for the speech disruptors.
Just for reference, on the same day that Duncan spoke, there were eight other student chapter Federalist Society events hosted throughout the country that were apparently not disrupted.
Incident 2: Yale Law and the subsequent “boycott.” In 2022, Kristen Waggoner and Monica Miller discussed a first amendment case Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski. Waggoner, general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (a group some consider a hate group) appeared to be the impetus for the disruption. This was a student Federalist Society event. Of course, there was the judge “boycott” afterward and the invite for boycott member Fifth Circuit Judge Ho to speak.
Incident 3: Ilya Shapiro’s talk at UC Hastings (it was still named Hastings in 2022). He was speaking there about the Supreme Court nomination process after his now infamous “inartful” tweets and was disrupted. This was a student chapter Federalist Society event. A recent speech was also protested, but according to Shapiro it turned out “fine” with the help of security guards and threats of discipline to the students, so no disruption. This, too, was a student Federalist Society event. He may have had other disruptions. After all, he had 10 speaking events just in the last quarter of 2022.
Incident 4: In 2018, Professor Josh Blackman was disrupted during a talk he was giving at CUNY on, ironically enough, free speech on college campuses. Although it appears he was able to continue talking. This was a student chapter Federalist Society event.
Incident 5: Back in 2018, Christina Hoff Sommers spoke at Lewis and Clark. Disruptors initially blocked access to her talk, and shouted her down throughout her talk. This was a student chapter Federalist Society event.
Incident 6: Harvard Law. Some disruptions are not shouting down the speaker. In 2022, a Harvard Law panel experienced a walk out of about 75 students when a Harvard Students For Life panel of pro-choice speakers were presenting. The talk continued, but I will count it nonetheless. This was a Harvard Students for Life event.
Incident 7: Judge Stras at Duke Law School in 2021. According to Josh Blackman, a single student asked to read a statement, which the judge accommodated. You can read further about the incident here. Despite the politeness, I shall count it as a disruption. This was an event co-hosted by the student chapter Federalist Society and the Clerkship Office.
Incident 8: In 2022, Jeffery Ventrella of the Alliance Defending Freedom gave a talk at UNC School of Law. According to a news article, “when he began making negative comments about sexual orientation, [disruptors] began engaging directly with the speaker and eventually chanting slogans such as ‘the Founders were enslavers.’” The event was hosted by the student chapter of the Federalist Society.
Incident 9: In 2019, GMU Law Professor Eugene Kontorovich came to the University of Chicago to give a talk discussing “the First Amendment as it pertains to laws that target the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.” As he began talking, he was disrupted. Apparently, the disruptors were not students, however. And they were escorted out. The event was hosted by the student chapter of the LDB.
Incident 10: In 2019, Georgetown Law invited then acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan to give a keynote address at an immigration conference. However, he was unable to give the keynote because disruptors shut him down.
In some instances, there were competing events. Take Kansas University, where students staged a counter event. Jordan Lorence, director of strategic engagement at Alliance Defending Freedom, was slated to speak at KU. This was a student chapter Federalist Society event. Another student group, Outlaw and Allies, hosted a protest outside of the hall. The speaker was not disrupted. However, there was some drama, and one Kansas Supreme Court Justice resigned his adjunct position.
Approximately 10 in five years. And there are TONS of Federalist Society student chapter and other student group speeches every year.
So if they are so rarely shut down, why do they get so much attention when they are?
Attention is the goal.
Many of the speakers have a common theme of advocacy of limitation of rights (whether believed to be perceived or actual) such as abortion, bodily autonomy, same-sex marriage, and claiming one’s own gender. So disruptors are rightly angry, because the inviters, a student organization, chose to invite someone who denies perhaps the very existence of the disruptor. Disruptors want their voices heard because their colleagues have invited someone who does not believe the disruptor should exist or at the very least should have more limited freedom than the disruptors seek to have.
But disrupting the speech is potentially what the speaker wants. For example, David Lat’s discussion of Judge Duncan suggests someone thirsty for confrontation, and his hostility to even legitimate questions suggests that perhaps discourse was not his goal. Protestors who engage in disruption feed this attention thirst. The speaker can claim he was mistreated. He can claim he was the victim. In Duncan’s case, he has already called for the firing of administrative personnel.
The problem turns from discussion of his views and decisions to whether he was shut down by a woke “mob” (and protestors are always characterized as a “mob”) at a liberal institution that does not promote free speech. And then the university president VALIDATES the speaker to the detriment of the protestors. Or, in other scenarios, the administration creates backlash by NOT validating the speaker. The thing the disruptors seek — to be heard — results in them being dismissed by their own institution. Didn’t like that speaker? Well, now we have to have Judge Ho to show we aren’t liberal or woke or else we’ll be boycotted.
The speaker might even be fortunate enough to have friends or even an impartial organization selectively edit the video of the event to accentuate the pain he endured.
And this game is not without effects beyond the participants. Such incidents get a lot of press, and universities can then be painted as woke mobs in much need of reform. Reforms come in the way of ending tenure, banning CRT, and other Floridian objectives.
Someone’s fighting strategy is better than the others.
So this will happen again, until administrators and protestors learn. Because it totally makes sense for student Federalist Society organizations to invite high-profile and controversial speakers and trolls who are very good at provoking that response. There’s a draw to that. Drawing the foul? BONUS!
But that doesn’t mean everyone needs to help with the advertising of the event by drawing the foul.
The cure for this game is, in part, consistent and serious application of speech policies. I think of speech policies as a defensive measure against the outrage bellyflop. I think about it tactically: Don’t draw the foul. There’s more to it than that. Right now, I’m just focused on not drawing the foul. Speaker’s claims need to be responded to; students need to be allowed outlets to discuss and critique the speaker. Those, too, need to be addressed.
For example, were I a student at Stanford, I would have sought to host a speaker the same day as Judge Duncan. Perhaps someone knowledgeable about domestic violence and its association with guns. Perhaps someone knowledgeable about women’s health issues. Perhaps someone knowledgeable about the death penalty. To highlight that the Fifth Circuit’s decisions have consequences, and those consequences mean, quite often, death.
And no, dear disruptors, the speaker and the speaker’s purported list of atrocities do not matter, sadly. No matter how villainous you think the person is, the news will not carry their villainy. They will only carry how rude you were not to let the speaker speak. And how the campus is too woke.
And yes, there will be discussions of how it isn’t the speaker but the crowd. “How come this never happens to Marxist speakers at law schools?” Well, for starters, you’d have to INVITE ONE. And let’s not forget what happened to people even accused of being Marxists not that long ago (events which the ABA had a hand in). That was before the time that anyone who disagreed with a politician got called a Marxist, or a CRT advocate, or worse.
How times have changed. Take a look at the number of stories about threats to tenure and campus education versus the number of stories about conservative speakers getting “canceled.” Sure, FIRE is “on it,” but the disproportional response of outrage to one versus the other is telling. Yet the percentage of disrupted events to the total number of talks is so very small.
And while Stanford is reeling from the effects of the disruption, with the administrator facing hostility and calls for firing, and protestors face calls for their punishment, no one is asking the question about what consequences there should be for Duncan. Let me predict them: Calling a student an “appalling idiot” and other niceties will enhance his speaker cred. When you get “canceled,” it enhances your reputation as a speaker. Maybe we should call it the Ilya Shapiro Effect?
I’m not saying anything stunning here. But the current system of the speaker gets to speak, blow off questions, be rude, and then cry cancellation from the woke mob is only working for one group. And that group is hell-bent on destroying universities.
The game makes no one look good. Well, almost no one.
LawProfBlawg is an anonymous law professor. You can see more of his musings here. He is way funnier on social media, he claims. Please follow him on Twitter (@lawprofblawg). Email him at email@example.com.