American Bar Association Considers Crackdown On ‘Disruptive Conduct’ In Wake of Stanford Shout Down

New accreditation standard would require law schools to ban behavior that ‘hinders free expression'

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August 17, 2023

The American Bar Association could soon require all law schools to bar "disruptive conduct that hinders free expression," according to a proposal from the group’s accreditation arm.

The group’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, which accredits all law schools in the United States, proposed the rule after hundreds of students at Stanford Law School shouted down a sitting federal judge in March, prompting House Republicans to call on the bar association to investigate the school. Those events were "in the background" of the draft requirement, according to an August 2 memo from the bar association. Yale Law School and the University of California Hastings Law School experienced similar disruptions in 2022, each instigated by progressive students upset about a conservative speaker.

The accreditation standard reads as a direct response to those incidents. Law schools must "protect the rights of faculty, students, and staff to communicate ideas that may be controversial or unpopular," the draft requirement states, including through public demonstrations. At the same time, the standard would prohibit protests that stifle "free expression by preventing or substantially interfering with the carrying out of law school functions or approved activities."

The proposal comes amid accusations that the bar association has stifled free speech through its accreditation process. The group drew criticism last year when it required all law schools to instruct students that they have a duty to eliminate racism, a move that many law professors, including 10 at Yale, said would imperil academic freedom and result in compelled speech. It also considered requiring law schools to "diversify" their student bodies—only to axe the proposal a month before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the case that outlawed race-based college admissions.

The American Bar Association declined to comment.

Though the group has long required law schools to have policies protecting academic freedom, it has offered few specifics on what those policies should entail. As disruptive protests become increasingly common on law school campuses, experts say the proposal would fill an important gap.

"The current standard doesn’t provide any substance," Paul Lannon, an attorney at Holland & Knight who specializes in education law, told ABA Journal, which is published by the American Bar Association. "This kind of guidance from the ABA is long overdue."