Student Activists Target Stanford Law School Dean in Revolt Over Her Apology

Jenny Martinez becomes the target of student ire for saying “I’m sorry” to besieged judge Kyle Duncan

Stanford University (Getty Images)
March 14, 2023

Hundreds of Stanford student activists on Monday lined the hallways to protest the law school’s dean, Jenny Martinez, for apologizing to Fifth Circuit appellate judge Kyle Duncan, whom the activists shouted down last week. 

The embattled dean arrived to the classroom where she teaches constitutional law to find a whiteboard covered inch to inch in fliers attacking Duncan and defending those who disrupted him, according to photos of the room and multiple eyewitness accounts. The fliers parroted the argument, made by student activists, that the heckler’s veto is a form of free speech.

"We, the students in your constitutional law class, are sorry for exercising our 1st Amendment rights," some fliers read. As a private law school, Stanford is not bound by the First Amendment, though California state law does apply some First Amendment protections to private universities.

The protest followed a flurry of open letters from student activists, who spent much of the weekend berating Martinez after she and Stanford University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne issued a formal apology to Duncan condemning the students who disrupted his talk and the administrators who stood by silently and watched them do so. 

The apology also took a swipe at Tirien Steinbach, the law school’s associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, who interrupted Duncan to lecture him about the "harm" he’d caused.

When Martinez’s class adjourned on Monday, the protesters, dressed in black and wearing face masks that read "counter-speech is free speech," stared silently at Martinez as she exited her first-year constitutional law class at 11:00 a.m., according to five students who witnessed the episode. The student protesters, who formed a human corridor from Martinez’s classroom to the building’s exit, comprised nearly a third of the law school, the students told the Washington Free Beacon

The majority of Martinez’s class—approximately 50 students out of the 60 enrolled—participated in the protest themselves, two students in the class said. The few who didn’t join the protesters received the same stare down as their professor as they hurried through the makeshift walk of shame.

"They gave us weird looks if we didn’t wear black" and join the crowd, said Luke Schumacher, a first-year law student in Martinez’s class who declined to participate in the protest. "It didn’t feel like the inclusive, belonging atmosphere that the DEI office claims to be creating."

Another student in the class, who likewise declined to protest, said the spectacle was a surreal experience. "It was eerie," said the student, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. "The protesters were silent, staring from behind their masks at everyone who chose not to protest, including the dean." 

Ironically, the student added, "this form of protest would have been completely fine" at Duncan’s talk on Thursday. 

Martinez did not respond to a request for comment.

This protest was even larger than the one that disrupted Duncan’s talk, and came on the heels of statements from at least three student groups rebuking Martinez’s apology. 

The Stanford National Lawyers Guild said Saturday that Martinez had thrown "capable and compassionate administrators" under the bus. The law school’s Immigration & Human Rights Law Association issued a similar declaration on Sunday, writing to its mailing list that Stanford’s apology to Duncan "has only made this situation worse." And Stanford Law School’s chapter of the American Constitution Society expressed outrage that Martinez and Tessier-Lavigne had framed Duncan "as a victim, when in fact he himself had made civil dialogue impossible." 

The groups argued that the students who disrupted Duncan, in violation of Stanford’s free speech policies, were merely exercising their own free speech rights. That disruption, one student said, was coordinated by second-year law student Denni Arnold, who can be seen on video instructing protesters to "tone down the heckling slightly so we can get to our questions." 

Arnold did not respond to a request for comment.

The idea that the protesters were exercising their free speech—rather than shutting down someone else’s—appears to be shared by Steinbach, the diversity dean who harangued Duncan. 

In a conversation with students after the event, Steinbach claimed the hecklers hadn’t violated any law school policies, according to two people who witnessed the conversation. She also alleged that Duncan hadn’t prepared a speech—a claim contradicted by video of the judge holding pages of pre-written remarks—and that he was a serial provocateur, belittling law students everywhere he's spoken in order to rile them up for the cameras. 

Steinbach, who did not respond to a request for comment, laid the blame for the chaos entirely at Duncan’s feet, the people who witnessed the conversation said.

Martinez said at the start of her class that she had received a number of emails complaining about her apology to Duncan but told students they would not be litigating that dispute during Monday’s class. 

After Martinez left the building, Schumacher said, the protesters began to cheer, cry, and hug. "We are creating a hostile environment at this law school," Schumacher said—"hostile for anyone who thinks an Article III judge should be able to speak without heckling."

This piece has been updated to note that California state law does apply some First Amendment protections to private universities.