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A third of Stanford students say using violence to silence speech can be acceptable

Black and white photo of the Stanford campus with a pie chart indicating polling or data
  • A year after Judge Kyle Duncan was shouted down at Stanford University, a new FIRE report lays out just how dim the free speech climate at the school really was before and after the incident.
  • Three-fourths of Stanford students say shouting down a speaker is either “rarely,” “sometimes,” or “always” an acceptable form of protest, and more than a third say the same about physical violence.
  • FIRE used polling data before and after the judge’s visit to map out how a high-profile heckler’s veto changed Stanford’s free speech climate.

PALO ALTO, April 18, 2024 — In March 2023, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan attempted to speak at an event held by the Stanford Law School Federalist Society—and was instead shouted down by dozens of demonstrators. 

Under the pretense of quieting the crowd, Stanford’s then-Associate Dean Tirien Steinbach took the podium and delivered prepared remarks scolding Duncan for having “caused harm” and questioning whether his appearance was worth the trouble, asking, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” The heckling and disruption persisted, leading to Duncan’s premature departure under escort by federal marshals. 

Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression released “The Judge Duncan Shoutdown: What Stanford Students Think,” a retrospective survey detailing how Stanford students felt about the school’s handling of the incident and laying bare the endemic anti-free speech attitudes that led to the disruption.

As the Judge Duncan shoutdown was happening, FIRE and College Pulse were in the process of surveying more than 55,000 college students nationwide, including 284 students at Stanford, as part of the 2023 College Free Speech Rankings. FIRE was therefore able to compare the responses of Stanford students from before the incident to those of students after the incident to track the real-time effect of a high-profile heckler’s veto on the campus speech climate. FIRE also took the opportunity to poll an additional 531 Stanford students and ask specific questions about the shoutdown.

FIRE’s polling shows that while conservative students reported more comfort discussing the Stanford shoutdown after the fact than did liberal and moderate students, they also felt more uncomfortable discussing “controversial political topics” and reported self-censoring more often. In the starkest finding, close to half of conservative students said they felt comfortable publicly disagreeing with their professor on a controversial topic before the visit (45%), but that percentage plummeted to merely 6% after the visit.

Bar graph showing percent of conservative Stanford students comfortable doing the following on Stanford's campus broken down before-after Judge Duncan visit

“After the Judge Duncan shoutdown, our polls show conservative speech on Stanford’s campus wasn’t just chilled. It was frozen solid,” said FIRE Chief Research Advisor Sean Stevens. “An act of censorship doesn’t just silence one speaker. It silences thousands of others who take notice and choose to keep quiet for fear of receiving the same treatment.”

Stanford students had complicated and seemingly contradictory feelings about the judge’s visit itself:

  • 74% of students agreed that the school failed to uphold its commitment to free speech during Judge Duncan’s visit.
  • But more than half (54%) said the school should have canceled the speech. 
  • 60% of Stanford students said the administration was correct to suspend Dean Steinbach.
  • But about two-thirds (65%) said the school should not have apologized to Judge Duncan.

Stanford students’ views on the shoutdown differed depending on their politics. Conservatives were more likely than liberals to defend Judge Duncan and liberals were more likely than conservatives to defend the disruption. In the largest partisan gap, 88% of conservatives believed the students who disrupted the event should have been punished, whereas only 35% of liberals believed the same.

Bar graph showing partisan differences in feelings about Judge Duncan’s visit among Stanford students were stronger than the gender and racial differences.

Stanford students were also significantly more likely than students at other colleges polled for the College Free Speech Rankings to support illiberal and violent methods for shutting down campus speech. Three-fourths of Stanford students said shouting down speakers is either “rarely,” “sometimes,” or “always” acceptable, and more than a third (36%) said the same about using physical violence.

Bar graph showing percent of students who say that students using a form of illiberal protest is at least "rarely" acceptable.

“That some of these students say violence is ‘rarely’ acceptable should be no comfort when there’s only one correct answer to this question: violence is never an acceptable response to speech,” said Stevens. “Every bully and mob comforts themself with the notion that they have identified the rare instance where violence is required to defeat an idea. It never is, and schools need to punish and prevent violence.”

When asked about which specific controversial beliefs should not be allowed on campus, Stanford students were more accepting of liberal-coded political opinions than they were of conservative-coded ones. Overwhelming majorities said Stanford should allow a speaker who believes transgender women should compete in women’s sports (82%) or that the federal government should confiscate all guns (71%).

But only 59% said Stanford should allow a speaker on campus who believes that biological differences explain gender differences, including less than half of liberal students (49%). Only 40% said that a speaker who believes that same-sex marriage is unconstitutional should be allowed (Duncan argued in support of same-sex marriage bans as an attorney). And only 31% would allow a speaker who supports the prosecution of women who obtain abortions.

“It doesn’t matter if the speaker is on the left or the right, a freshman or a federal judge. Incidents like the Judge Duncan shoutdown aren’t isolated affairs, but symptoms of a larger problem with campus free speech culture,” said Stevens.

“FIRE is heartened by some of the moves Stanford has made in the past year to instruct its students about the value of free speech. We’re standing by to help any schools that want to recommit to creating an environment where contentious views are met with debate and dialogue, not shoutdowns and censorship.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE recognizes that colleges and universities play a vital role in preserving free thought within a free society. To this end, we place a special emphasis on defending the individual rights of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.

College Pulse is a survey research and analytics company dedicated to understanding the attitudes, preferences, and behaviors of today’s college students. College Pulse delivers custom data-driven marketing and research solutions, utilizing its unique American College Student Panel™ that includes over 750,000 college students and recent alumni from more than 1,500 two- and four-year colleges and universities in all 50 states. For more information, visit or @CollegeInsights on Twitter.

The sample for the Judge Duncan survey consists of 413 undergraduate students, 90 graduate students, and 28 students of unknown status — for a total of 531 students. Data were collected from April 26 to July 26, 2023. The overall margin of error was +/- 4%. 

The report also includes an analysis of responses from 284 Stanford students separately surveyed for FIRE’s 2024 College Free Speech Rankings. This included 78 Stanford students surveyed before Judge Duncan’s visit to campus and 206 surveyed after Judge Duncan’s visit. The margin of error for the whole sample of 284 Stanford students is +/- 6%.


Alex Griswold, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473;

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