Opinion With some of my fellow Stanford Law students, there’s no room for argument

(Washington Post staff illustration; iStock)
6 min

Tess Winston is a third-year student at Stanford Law School.

Stanford Law School has been in the news lately, after students disrupted a talk by a conservative federal judge. Similar protests have derailed events featuring conservative speakers at other law schools over the past year.

But as a third-year student at Stanford Law School, I see a more troubling problem: an academic environment with two loud camps, one aligning with far-right politics, one aligning with the far left. In between, where most students can be found: silence.

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There’s little room for nuance. If you’re not overtly one of “us,” then you’re assumed to be one of “them.”

The far-right students make up a small and unpopular camp; there are perhaps half a dozen in my third-year class of 180 students. But their words and actions — such as trying to block the graduation of a progressive student who had mocked the conservative Federalist Society and its Stanford chapter’s invitations to speakers seemingly with the aim of provoking a reaction — have an outsize effect.

The far-left students in my class are more numerous — perhaps 20. (The left-right balance is closer in the classes behind me.) They are also far more outspoken than those on the right. And they hold more social influence because, in my experience, the many law students with left-of-center politics, but not far left, fear being labeled moderate or conservative by them.

The far-left students have a dismissive shorthand for fellow students whose politics they consider not sufficiently progressive: “future prosecutors.” The message is loud and clear — prosecutors are the bad guys. But also: Be careful what you say.

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I often think of one of my first-year professors, who was appalled by these students’ stigmatizing of the prosecutorial role. He asked one: Given that prosecutors decide whether and what charges to bring against a defendant, isn’t it preferable for well-qualified people to fill the role? Without missing a beat, the student responded: No, being a prosecutor is simply evil.

Two years later, students in evidence class are clearly aware of the stigma. When two students are given a choice to explain from the perspective of a prosecutor or defense attorney how certain evidence should be entered into the record, the first student almost invariably opts for defense attorney; then the other student makes a joke or a comment signaling displeasure at being stuck with the role of prosecutor. Just about the only time someone chooses to play prosecutor is for a murder or rape case.

In other courses, students have refused to argue points made by justices whose perspectives they don’t like. Or they first issue a disclaimer about their disagreement. That sets the standard: Other students fall into line, making a similar disclaimer when it’s their turn to role-play.

This does everyone a disservice. It gets in the way of learning to make, or parry, compelling arguments on both sides of important legal questions — a skill critical to effectively representing future clients.

It’s even worse outside the classroom. Expressing nuance about certain matters — whether on Israel or policing — is essentially taboo for anyone who doesn’t want to invite social ostracizing.

I know this from helping organize a spring-break trip this year to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Far-left, pro-Palestinian students opposed the trip, urging classmates to abstain from visiting the “apartheid state” of Israel. One student, who ended up going anyway, was first subjected to an intervention-like meeting with critics of the trip. Others, intimidated, dropped out. One told me, “It’s not my fight.”

On another occasion, a message that invited classmates to meet to discuss anti-Black police violence declared: “All are welcome, but the conversation will be explicitly abolitionist (so we will not be entertaining convos that seek to reform, rather than abolish, the police).”

Only now — as a student about to graduate — do I realize how few classmates agree with the loudest ones. Most of us fall somewhere in between or are still forming our opinions.

A friend recently told me that “coming out as a moderate was more difficult than coming out as gay at Stanford Law School.” He eventually moved to San Francisco so he could “just ignore the madness.”

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These dynamics are hardly unique to Stanford. My friends at law schools, including Yale and Harvard, have shared similar experiences. Berkeley Law school’s dean, the free-speech scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, voiced concern in December about students facing subtle pressure from classmates to withhold certain views.

The problems that Stanford faces are part of a larger phenomenon on college and university campuses. In a 2021 study conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and College Pulse, more than 80 percent of students, at 159 colleges, said they censored themselves.

Stanford’s administration has recognized the threat to discourse at both the law school and the undergraduate level. In February, a group led by law school faculty members Paul Brest and Norman W. Spaulding published a report with valuable recommendations for faculty, deans and administrators to begin addressing these issues.

The report calls on Stanford to emphasize to prospective and current students its commitment to open, inclusive discourse and to explore how the admissions process might consider applicants’ willingness to abide by that ideal. It also recommends that Stanford offer courses and programs that prepare students to engage in such discourse.

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In the wake of the protests last month that disrupted Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan’s Federalist Society appearance, Stanford Law School Dean Jenny S. Martinez announced steps to address some of these issues, including “clearer protocols for managing disruptions and educational programming on free speech and norms of the legal profession.”

Students can play a role, too. I hope more will speak their piece rather than remaining silent, taking back the room with the sort of thoughtful exchanging of views that is essential to the legal profession.

I wish I had done that more often during my own time at Stanford. Yet I have never regretted my decision to attend the law school. I treasure the friends I’ve made, and the value of the legal education delivered by the professors and lecturers far outweighs the drawbacks.

But if there is one place where people should understand the value of learning to engage — and disagree — respectfully, it is law school.