Opinion

Kansas Supreme Court justice resigns as teacher after KU protests antigay speaker. Bless his heart.

December 2, 2022 3:33 am
constitutionality of the 2022 Legislature's maps recasting district boundaries for congressional and legislative seats. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall has resigned his adjunct post at the University of Kansas. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall had his feelings hurt.

Students and administrators at the University of Kansas questioned whether the campus Federalist Society should have invited an anti-LGBTQ speaker. Despite protests, the talk from Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defending Freedom went forward as planned. Stegall outlined the situation and his claims in a six-page letter, packed with the kind of petty grievances one might expect to read in the diary of a middle schooler, and resigned his adjunct faculty position.

Bless his heart.

“KU Law is not serving its students well — nor is it preparing them to take their place as lawyers in the great conversation (or Kansas courtrooms) — when it engages in bullying and censoring tactics, fosters a spirit of fear, drives dissent into a guerrilla posture, and gives institutional backing and support to overwrought grievances which can and do cripple a persons’ ability to critically engage with ideas or people with whom they disagree,” he wrote.

Stegall appears to be throwing a very public tantrum for hard-right GOP legislators in Topeka, hoping to gin up some outrage next session. KU has seldom been especially popular at the Statehouse, and perhaps the conservative justice imagines Chancellor Doug Girod being dragged in for a public grilling.

Allow me to make two points, which are really all this man and his manufactured controversy deserve.

First, the situation as described by the Kansas City Star’s Jonathan Shorman and Katie Bernard appears to have worked out ideally. A controversial speaker received an invitation to appear. Everyone had their say. Even administrators who supposedly asked students to disinvite Lorence admitted that they had a right to invite him. Protesters gathered to make their views heard. The speech went off without apparent hitches.

Even Stegall’s response to the entire matter was duly covered, not only by the Star but by Brad Cooper’s Sunflower State Journal, John Hanna of the Associated Press and Andrew Bahl of the Topeka Capital-Journal. The Sentinel, a right-wing propaganda outlet, published not only an article but also included a PDF of Stegall’s letter.

No one can claim that the justice didn't have his say in a remarkably public way. So what's there to be upset about?

– Clay Wirestone

No one can claim that the justice didn’t have his say in a remarkably public way.

So what’s there to be upset about?

I’m a free speech absolutist, myself. The government has no business regulating what people say, and we usually benefit from an exchange of views and perspectives. In that way, I agree with Stegall’s sentiments about the importance of persuading others to your views. We should all feel free to express ourselves in the public square.

However, and this is my second point, this expression too often comes at the expense of LGBTQ people.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has described the Alliance Defending Freedom as a hate group. While that designation could be argued, the center also describes what the alliance has worked toward in recent years. Their list:

If someone wants to make those arguments in public, they should be able to do so. I’m sure that alliance speakers can persuasively tell audiences why my husband and I shouldn’t be married and in fact imprisoned for being intimate. (Some recent commenters on my Twitter account have attempted to do so as well, in more vulgar terms.)

No law school or associated organization would invite a speaker calling for the return of Jim Crow laws. No one would invite a speaker who supported wartime internment camps for other races. No one would invite a speaker to explain why women don’t have the mental capacity to serve as lawyers.

Anyone who believes such nonsense should be able to say it. But law schools wouldn’t invite them.

And state supreme court justices wouldn’t write letters defending them.

To put a finer point on it: Would Sam Brownback appointee Caleb Stegall resign his KU post if it involved defending a segregationist? Or does he simply see LGBTQ people as less than? Does he see their concerns and lives as worth less than those of straight people?

In a week when the U.S. Senate resoundingly approved a bill protecting marriage rights for same-sex couples, anyone with clear eyes and an open heart can understand how far our country has come. I wouldn’t dream of silencing anyone who disagrees. I wouldn’t dream of making common cause with them, either.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Clay spent 2017 to 2021 at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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