Free speech needs muscle

Officials at Stanford University could learn something from the New York City Police Department about defending free speech while maintaining order. When hecklers prevented an invited speaker from addressing an audience at Stanford’s law school, what could have been a peaceful protest turned into an act of verbal violence. It’s easier to stop people from crossing these boundaries when you’ve established boundaries. 

In this case, the scheduled speaker was a conservative judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. Stuart Kyle Duncan’s views on transgender people’s use of bathrooms and gay marriage are not relevant here. He was officially sanctioned to present his views, however controversial. 

Stanford Law Dean Jenny Martinez won justified praise from free-speech advocates for sending an apology to the judge and issuing a 10-page rundown of what the disrupters did wrong. 

“Some students might feel that some points should not be up for argument and therefore that they should not bear the responsibility of arguing them,” she wrote. But that “is incompatible with the training that must be delivered in a law school.”  

Or, frankly, in a high school. 

However, she could have gone a step further. Toward the end she did support forging a “more detailed and explicit policy” for dealing with disruptions, including enforcement “through disciplinary sanctions.” Too bad she wasn’t more explicit about the possibility of expelling those who forcibly prevent invited speakers from sharing their views. 

There has to be punishment with teeth. The prospect of getting kicked out of an elite law school could well have deterred the self-appointed censors. (How students seeking a profession dedicated to using words for argumentation — rather than drowning out the other viewpoints with volume — got into Stanford in the first place is worth asking.)  

Compare this with the sophisticated approach of the NYPD when faced with the two volatile days of Donald Trump’s recent arrival and arraignment. Around both Trump Tower and the courthouse, the department had deployed a first line of experts in maintaining order and lowering temperatures. They wore bright blue slickers with the words NYPD Community Affairs written on the back. 

At the courthouse they kept pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators separated by erecting barriers with a path between. There were mental health issues on both sides, but here’s one example of how they worked: When a fuming young Trump supporter tried to force her tantrum on the anti-Trump crowd, the Community Affairs guys surrounded her and coaxed her back to the Trump side. 

And importantly, there was another layer of policing for keeping the peace: the NYPD’s uniformed army. The officers carrying battle gear were largely kept in the background, but the demonstrators knew they were there. If they got violent, they knew the consequences would be arrest, not discussion of possible “disciplinary sanctions.”  

How did they know that? They knew because of the recent coverage of how big the NYPD was and how prepared. They knew because Mayor Eric Adams famously kicked off the events with a public address wrapped in steely promise of enforcement. 

“New York City is our home, not a playground for your misplaced anger,” the former police captain said, the police commissioner by his side. “While you’re in town, be on your best behavior.” These carefully chosen words, stripped of overt threat, effectively got the point across to the politically charged crowds descending on two cramped corners of Manhattan. Imagine the message a law school dean could deliver if she had a genuine enforcement mechanism at her disposal. 

Martinez did a good job given what she had to work with. But at the end of the day, one needs muscle to preserve free speech. The dean probably already knows that. 

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.