The culture war is usually a cold one. Conservatives and liberals have been facing off on social issues for generations, fighting proxy wars in the courts or newspapers. And as secular progressivism becomes increasingly dogmatic — you’re a bigot, a racist, and a threat to democracy if you so much as question the premises of their ideology — it seems that our culture war is careening toward a mutually assured destruction, sans the atomic bomb.
But the Left has found a weapon that the Right fears to wield: the suppression of speech. It might not be a nuclear warhead, but whether used by the Global Disinformation Index or local troublemakers wearing black masks, suppression of speech helps the Left and hurts the Right.
This suppression is especially dangerous in the age of the internet, when everything can be controlled by a search algorithm or blacklisted behind the scenes. But, luckily for us, neophyte progressives can be clumsy in their fledgling attempts to prove themselves to be true believers.
Take, for example, the recent events at Stanford Law School. Student protesters and a DEI dean prevented Judge Kyle Duncan of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals from delivering his invited lecture for the law school’s chapter of the Federalist Society. The events at Stanford Law School sparked a national conversation on free speech, stirring up commentary and launching op-eds — including one by the judge himself.
Following the spectacle at Stanford, Vincent Phillip Muñoz, the director of Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government, invited Duncan to deliver a lecture in response to the protests. So, on Friday, March 24, Duncan visited the Golden Dome to give a speech titled “Free Speech and Legal Education in Our Liberal Democracy.”
In his talk, Duncan did not dwell on the details of the March 9 protests. “Suffice it to say, it was a disgrace,” he remarked. Instead, he set about to reflect on the broader implications of the events, which, having transpired at one of the country’s most elite law schools, offer a snapshot of our current zeitgeist.
“Make no mistake, he said, “What happened in that classroom on March 9 had nothing to do with our great American tradition of free speech. It was, rather, a parody of it.”
Let’s say the quiet part out loud: The mob came to target me because they hate my work and my ideas …. None of this spectacle, this obviously staged public shaming, had the slightest thing to do with free speech. It had everything to do with intimidation. And, to be clear, not intimidation of me …. The targets of the intimidation were the protesters’ fellow students.
This intimidation is a rather classic tactic for campus culture wars. By isolating an ideological opponent, the Stanford protestors sought to humiliate Duncan for “refus[ing] to enlist the federal judiciary in the project of controlling what pronouns people use.” But they moreover wanted to show their fellow classmates just how unwelcome their conservative beliefs are. If your fellow classmates are willing to shout down a federal judge, just imagine what they’ll do to you.
But, as Duncan discussed in his lecture, such behavior is unbefitting of a lawyer or a lawyer-to-be. Our legal system operates almost entirely on the basis of sustained, reasoned argument, and, as Duncan said, “To be a lawyer, by definition, means that you have to occupy the same room with people that you seriously disagree with.” America might be a litigious society, but we seem to have forgotten that key element of the legal system.
These implications were top of mind for Muñoz as well. “That a federal judge was not able to deliver prepared remarks at one of our nation’s highest-ranked law schools is troubling,” he said. “There may be reasons to disagree with the judge on both legal and policy grounds, but one cannot receive a sound legal education — indeed, our legal system cannot function — without the freedom for individuals to advocate for their side.”
Through his lecture at Notre Dame, Duncan exemplified the calm, reasoned debate that truly aims to convince an audience, not shut them up. In making such a disturbance at Stanford, the protesters fumbled — the public suppression of speech, it turns out, often gives the target a bigger platform. With a Wall Street Journal op-ed and now a public speaking engagement, Duncan is taking to the bully pulpit with grace and ease. The culture war rages on, but this guerilla operation of the Left, it seems, has backfired.
Mary Frances Myler is a postgraduate fellow at the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.
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