Kansas justice chides state law school for ‘closed’ climate

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A member of Kansas’ highest court has resigned in protest from a part-time teaching job at a state law school following what he says was an unsuccessful attempt by the university to pressure students into canceling an event featuring a leader of a group that opposes LGBTQ rights.

State Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall’s protest last week came amid ongoing and often contentious national debates over free speech on college campuses, what’s taught in college and in K-12 classrooms, and what materials and programs libraries should provide. Stegall, perceived as the Kansas court’s most conservative member, decried what he called a “closed and stifling culture” at the University of Kansas law school in a six-page letter to its dean.

Disputes over speakers, particularly conservatives, have prompted legislators in more than 20 states to enact laws aimed at preventing state colleges from limiting speeches and demonstrations. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Stegall’s protest would prompt such an effort next year in the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature, but the liberal University of Kansas has been a regular target of criticism from conservative lawmakers.

“Lawyers ought to form the last and best line of defense of the liberal public square and its pillars,” Stegall said in his letter, dated Nov. 25.

Stegall’s protest involved an Oct. 20 program sponsored by the campus Federalist Society chapter featuring Jordan Lorence, the Alliance for Defending Freedom’s senior counsel and engagement director. The event prompted a competing LGBTQ-rights celebration, and the day before Lorence’s appearance, an administrator told law school faculty and students in an email that the alliance’s positions conflict with the school’s values, which include condemning hate speech.

Stegall declined to comment on his letter, which first became public in a story in the Sunflower State Journal and also was published in full by a free-market, small-government group’s newsletter. The university said Stegall was a lecturer for each fall semester from 2017 through this year and was paid $10,200 per semester.

Stegall said he didn’t want to teach in a “closed and fearful environment, brimming with hidden hostilities and carefully nursed grievances.”

Stegall was appointed to Kansas’ highest court in 2014 by the governor at the time, conservative Republican Sam Brownback. He’d served previously as Brownback’s chief counsel.

In a response, law school Dean Stephen Mazza thanked Stegall for his “thoughtful letter” and encouraged him to “remain engaged” with the school.

Mazza added in an email to The Associated Press: “KU takes pride in its role as a marketplace of ideas, and we strive to provide opportunities for various perspectives to be debated and discussed within our community — as they were during the KU Federalist Society’s event on campus last month.”

The alliance’s critics on the Kansas campus contend the conservative Christian group attacks the LGBTQ community’s civil rights and demonizes transgender people. They held their counter-event outside the law school building while the program went on inside.

One law student, Corrinne Yoder-Mulkey, told the campus newspaper that the event made students feel unsafe and, “We deserve to be able to go to school and feel safe just like everybody else.”

The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression gives the University of Kansas a “yellow light” rating, with a “red light” meaning a campus has at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts free speech. Its 2022 survey of 481 colleges’ policies concluded that 68% deserved a “yellow light” and 18.5%, the “red light” rating.

Zach Greenberg, a senior program officer for the group, said resistance to having controversial speakers on campus from administrators, faculty and students is “depressingly common.”

He and Jeremy Young, a senior manager for the free-expression group PEN America, said students themselves play a big role in setting the free-speech climate on a campus on how they react to such events.

“Canceling conservative speakers on campus is a real problem,” Young said. “It’s not made up.”

But he called the University of Kansas case “complicated,” because while pressure to cancel an event is a “bad call,” the event went ahead.

In recent weeks, violent protests or the threat of violence prompted universities in California and Pennsylvania to cancel events involving far-right speakers.

The campus Federalist Society chapter’s leader — the daughter of a Republican state senator who is among the Legislature’s most conservative members — did not respond to email and social media messages seeking comment. Lorence said he rarely gets such a response on a college campus and discussed how the U.S. Supreme Court has handled religious liberty cases and free speech issues.

“It is incredibly concerning that a prominent law school, which should be training future lawyers to persuade others through logic and legal principles, is instead actively working to suppress free expression on campus,” he said in an email.

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