Facing forceful criticism and many questions, Stanford University moved Wednesday to allow a law-school student full graduation privileges after the student’s “satirical” letter, sent months ago, provoked the ire of a conservative student organization and a strong defense from a student-rights group.
Law student Nicholas Wallace was poised to graduate June 12, but his degree was held up while the school probed the missive, which took the form of a flyer advertising a made-up event titled “The Originalist Case for Insurrection,” supposedly sponsored by the campus chapter of the right-wing Federalist Society. According to the flyer, the “event” would include appearances by U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton “to discuss violent insurrection.” It added that “riot information” would be emailed the morning of the event.
“Violent insurrection, also known as doing a coup, is a classical system of installing a government,” the flyer said. “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.”
Hawley and Paxton were vilified by America’s left over their false claims that the 2020 U.S. federal election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, and their efforts to overturn the results. A photo of Hawley raising his fist in support of pro-Trump protesters the morning of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. has been widely circulated. Paxton falsely claimed after the insurrection that the people who had attacked the Capitol were not Trump supporters.
Despite Wallace’s flyer being sent January 25 and advertising an event to be held three weeks earlier, on January 6, Stanford put his upcoming degree on hold two weeks before he was to graduate, after Stanford Law’s student Federalist Society chapter complained about the flyer.
Stanford’s response to the complaint caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). “Stanford is not letting a student graduate because of political satire that offends a powerful organization dedicated to installing conservative judges?” Schatz tweeted Wednesday afternoon. “How is this taking any longer than 15 minutes for them to reverse and apologize?”
After Schatz’s tweet, and a viral Slate report Wednesday on the school’s action, and questions from this news organization, Stanford announced Wednesday that its investigation was done, the flyer was found to represent protected speech, and the hold on Wallace’s diploma was lifted.
Rights group FIRE — the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — had posted on its website a copy of a January 25 letter to Stanford from the student Federalist Society chapter, which accused Wallace of defaming the group, its officers, Hawley and Paxton.
“Many who saw Wallace’s flyer impersonating the Stanford Federalist Society were deceived,” the complaint letter claimed, noting that Wallace had included the Federalist Society’s logo at the bottom of his flyer, and accusing him of using the same template the student group uses to advertise events.
FIRE, in a letter to the university Monday, had called Wallace’s email — sent from his email address via a discussion listserv for students — “a sardonic commentary” protected by California free-speech law. “Parody and satire are vital forms of expression used as vehicles to criticize public figures and comment on controversial social and political issues,” the group’s letter said. “Parody and satire are not defamatory because they are neither intended nor understood as sincere statements of fact.”
FIRE lawyer Adam Steinbaugh said on the organization’s website that “no university of any caliber should investigate whether (satire) should be allowed.”
Investigations such as the one Stanford undertook over Wallace’s letter chill student’s free expression and are “inimical to the university’s purpose of unfettered discussion,” the organization’s letter to Stanford said.
KC Shah, co-president of Stanford Law School’s student body at the time Wallace sent out the satirical flyer, said Wednesday evening, “It’s clear that students can weaponize Stanford’s policies to chill speech.”
He said the response among Stanford law students to the action against Wallace had been immediate: Student listservs were packed with emails from upset students, and a group quickly created and circulated a petition on Wallace’s behalf. Shah, who now co-chairs the Graduate Student Council, said he found it hard not to view the Federalist Society’s decision to report Wallace as malicious, especially given how the complaint was lodged and escalated months after the incident and close to graduation.
At Stanford, Shah added, the Federalist Society — part of a national judicial-activism organization — is a small group that often portrays itself as discriminated against. In candidate statements when running for the board of the society, multiple members denounced cancel culture.
“It seems like at the very least, a student who initiated the fundamental standard action against Nick Wallace was engaging in cancel culture, so it’s pretty big hypocrisy,” he said.
The school’s Federalist Society chapter did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Stanford’s resolution of the complaint.
Wallace, in comments published on FIRE’s website before Stanford lifted his diploma hold, said he worried other students would see the action taken against him and would “hesitate to voice their opinions on controversial political topics.” He said he would fight to fix Stanford processes that led to his situation.
Stanford said that because the complaint raised issues of protected speech, the university had obtained legal advice after gathering relevant facts. “The complaint was resolved as expeditiously as possible, and the respondent and complainant have been informed that case law supports that the email is protected speech,” Stanford said in an email Wednesday evening, adding that in recent years it had seen increasing and more complex situations involving students and free speech.
“We will continue to review policies and practices relating to these to ensure ongoing compliance,” Stanford said. “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.”
After Stanford said in a Wednesday evening statement that it had followed “normal procedures” in investigating the Federalist Society’s complaint, Fire said in a statement, “If ‘normal procedures’ and review by a university attorney let an investigation into political satire proceed, something is wrong with the procedures. It should not take outrage from Twitter and a United States Senator to protect political satire at any institution of higher education.”