The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Stanford student bashed the Federalist Society with a satirical flier. He nearly missed getting his diploma.

People walk on the Stanford University campus near Hoover Tower in Stanford, Calif. (Ben Margot/AP)

A few weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Stanford Law student Nicholas Wallace mocked up a satirical flier aimed at the Federalist Society, a national organization for conservative and libertarian lawyers. The message mocked the group after some of its prominent members, including Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), backed efforts to overturn the election.

“Violent insurrection, also known as doing a coup, is a classical system of installing a government,” Wallace, 33, wrote in the flier, which claimed to be an invitation to hear Hawley and Paxton discuss the merits of a coup. “Although widely believed to conflict in every way with the rule of law, violent insurrection can be an effective approach to upholding the principle of limited government.”

Four months later, as Wallace prepared for graduation, final exams and bar prep, his joke had unexpected consequences: The university, he learned, was holding his diploma after the Stanford chapter of the Federalist Society filed a complaint.

Stanford said Wallace could not get his diploma at a June 12 graduation ceremony while the school investigated the claim that he had defamed Hawley, Paxton and the organization — a move that threatened his chance to take the bar exam this summer.

On Wednesday evening, though, the university reversed course after a firestorm of criticism following a Slate article detailing the case. The school confirmed with The Washington Post that it has resolved the complaint and that Wallace will be allowed to graduate on time next week.

“My immediate reaction was relief that Stanford has come to its senses,” Shawn Musgrave, a classmate who helped Wallace navigate the university’s judicial process, told The Post. “But it doesn’t eliminate my disappointment that it took national pressure to get Stanford to do what it should have done at the beginning, which is to realize it could not take action in this case.”

Stanford’s investigation had triggered red flags among First Amendment advocates, who noted the Supreme Court has held that satire of public figures qualifies as free speech.

“A reasonable person can’t read this email and think on the morning of Jan 6, Sen. Hawley was actually in Northern California teaching students how to riot,” said Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates for freedom of speech on campus. “That’s why it’s ironic. That’s why it’s satirical.”

Steinbaugh noted that while private universities are not beholden to free speech laws, California’s Leonard Law requires equal First Amendment protections for public and private institutions.

Wallace, a third-year law student from Ann Arbor, Mich., who is planning to take the bar exam this summer in his home state, dreamed up the satirical flier in the wake of the Capitol riot. Following the events on Jan. 6, the Federalist Society faced criticism after some members in Congress and state governments were accused of inciting or condoning the insurrection.

On Jan. 25, Wallace, who declined to comment for this story, sent the flier using the similar format and tone of the Stanford Federalist Society’s emails, to a student-run email list that is often used as a forum for political discussion. The flier, which was dated Jan. 6, advertised an event called “The Originalist Case for Inciting Insurrection.”

“Senator Hawley will argue that the ends justify the means,” Wallace wrote. “Attorney General Paxton will explain that when the Supreme Court refuses to exercise its Article III authority to overturn the results of a free and fair election, calling on a violent mob to storm the Capitol represents an appropriate alternative remedy.”

The flier attracted mixed reactions among Stanford’s law students. Some found it amusing, while members of the Federalist Society protested, according to copies of the emails made public by FIRE.

The email soon went viral and was shared widely on Twitter and posted in a Facebook group dedicated to law school memes. USA Today caught wind of the post and published a fact check, confirming that the flier was indeed fake.

The outrage eventually simmered down and for months Wallace heard nothing about it. He was unaware, though, that a leader of Stanford’s Federalist Society chapter, who has not been publicly identified, filed a student conduct complaint to the university’s Office of Community Standards in March.

“Wallace defamed the student group, its officers, Senator Josh Hawley, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton,” the complaint said, adding that Wallace “deceived” people and that the reputations of members of the group “have been harmed.”

In May, the group put pressure on Stanford’s Office of Community Standards to pursue the charges, according to FIRE. On May 22, weeks before law school graduation, the university notified Wallace that the school was proceeding with the complaint and that his diploma would be put on hold.

The Stanford Federalist Society did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment late Wednesday.

Steinbaugh then took up the case, sending Stanford a letter expressing his organization’s concerns that the investigation violated Wallace’s free speech protections.

“If you’re running a student conduct office at a university like Stanford, you should know what protected speech looks like and you should already have made steps to make sure that won’t have a chilling effect,” Steinbaugh told The Post.

Wallace said the school’s decision to open a probe tarnished his last weeks at Stanford.

“It has been a pretty awful way to close out my career at Stanford,” Wallace told Slate. “Instead of studying for finals, I’m trying to figure this out. I just sent an email to my family trying to reassure them that I haven’t blown it in my last few days at Stanford.”

After Slate drew national attention to the case Wednesday, the school faced wide backlash online from First Amendment rights experts and people across the political spectrum.

“Mocking an ideologically-based group can’t be made a basis for denying academic privileges in any open society worthy of respect,” Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe tweeted. “If accurate, this report shows Stanford Law School to be unworthy of treatment as an academic institution.”

Late on Wednesday, the university said it had ended its inquiry and found Wallace’s flier was protected by the Leonard Law. In a statement to The Post, a Stanford spokesman said the school followed “normal procedures and conducted a factual inquiry,” resolved the complaint as “expeditiously as possible” and that it was also “normal procedure” to hold a diploma during an investigation so close to graduation.

“In recent years, we have seen an increase in the number and complexity of student cases involving free speech, student judicial policies and the California Leonard Law,” the statement said. “We will continue to review policies and practices relating to these to ensure ongoing compliance. We are also reviewing procedures for placing holds on student accounts in judicial cases in close proximity to graduation to ensure that holds are limited to cases for which the outcome could be serious enough to affect the timing of degree conferral.”

Though Steinbaugh said he was pleased with the university’s decision, he questioned why it would be “normal procedure” for the university to investigate a complaint over a student’s “political expression.”

“Nobody’s speech is safe,” he wrote. “If an attorney reviewed this and let it move forward, who is the adult in the room?”

For Wallace, the news was a relief. In a note to the same email list where he sent the satirical flier, Wallace thanked his classmates for their support but noted that his experience was troubling.

“I hope to work with Stanford in the little time I have left to make sure that no other student is subjected to an abuse of process in this way again, and to develop better protections for students’ freedom of expression,” Wallace said in an email he shared with The Post.

He ended the email with one last quip: “PS this email not satire.”

The Jan. 6 insurrection

The report: The Jan. 6 committee released its final report, marking the culmination of an 18-month investigation into the violent insurrection. Read The Post’s analysis about the committee’s new findings and conclusions.

The final hearing: The House committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol held its final public meeting where members referred four criminal charges against former president Donald Trump and others to the Justice Department. Here’s what the criminal referrals mean.

The riot: On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. Five people died on that day or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

Inside the siege: During the rampage, rioters came perilously close to penetrating the inner sanctums of the building while lawmakers were still there, including former vice president Mike Pence. The Washington Post examined text messages, photos and videos to create a video timeline of what happened on Jan. 6. Here’s what we know about what Trump did on Jan. 6.