KS Supreme Court Justice Stegall leaves KU, cites uproar over conservative campus speaker

Thad Allton/For the Kansas Reflector

Kansas Supreme Court Justice Caleb Stegall has said he will stop teaching at the University of Kansas in response to how the School of Law handled student blowback against a Federalist Society event on campus.

Stegall, the most conservative justice on the state’s seven-member high court, told KU School of Law Dean Stephen Mazza in a letter Friday that he wouldn’t renew his position as an adjunct faculty member. The six-page letter amounts to a strong rebuke of the school’s direction, with Stegall writing that at the school, principles of free and open dialogue “are not celebrated, cherished, or valued.”

“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,” Stegall wrote.

The letter represents an extraordinary statement by one of the justices, who typically speak through their court opinions and whose public comments are often confined to platitudes about the judiciary.

While Stegall sent the letter privately, he copied nine people on it, all but ensuring it would begin circulating. Stegall wrote that he wouldn’t comment publicly, and he declined to comment on Wednesday through a court spokesperson.

The KU Law chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization, announced this fall it would invite Jordan Lorence, director of strategic engagement for the Alliance Defending Freedom, to speak on campus. The Alliance Defending Freedom is a legal group that says it is focused on defending religious freedom.

The organization has taken on cases seeking to block transgender athletes from competing in girls sports and supporting businesses that deny service to LGBTQ customers.

The announcement sparked controversy within the law school, and Stegall alleged KU Law’s administration pressured student leaders of the Federalist Society chapter to cancel the event. Stegall wrote that the students were told that although they had the right to host Lorence, they needed to consider the impact to their reputations.

Stegall wrote that, knowing the people involved, he could imagine that there was no intent to threaten or coerce the students and that the administration was trying to protect them.

“After all, it is true that in the current environment, being willing to swim upstream may in fact harm a person’s reputation and even standing in the legal community. But isn’t that the problem?” Stegall wrote. “Rather than acquiescing to this, my hope and expectation is that leaders in the legal community would instead help protect the reputations of students willing to engage in difficult discussions — and guide them in that process.”

Stegall wrote that prior to the event, a committee focused on diversity, equity and inclusion sent an email to the KU Law community that labeled Lorence as a practitioner of “hate speech.”

The committee, while acknowledging that KU Law would permit the event, by implication accused the student leaders of the Federalist Society chapter of facilitating hate speech, he wrote.

“To the extent the movement calling itself Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is an effort to encourage the imaginative effort on everyone’s part to consider what it is like to walk that proverbial mile in another’s shoes, it is laudable,” Stegall wrote.

“But if — as demonstrated by KU Law’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee — it is the operational arm of a bigger effort to silence large segments of our society, then it is an ideological movement committed to principles that are contrary to the principles of a free and equal society living under the rule of law.”

The event ultimately went on as planned though some students protested. The student newspaper, The University Daily Kansan, quoted Joshua Sipp, editor-in-chief of the Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy, as calling ADF’s presence on campus “offensive to me and it’s offensive to a lot of people who are here in attendance today.”

In an email to The Star, Mazza shared his response to Stegall, in which he thanked him for the letter.

“I appreciate the topics you have raised, and you should know that your perspective is valued here,” Mazza wrote. “My colleagues and I appreciate your service to KU Law over the last several years. The students have thoroughly enjoyed your class.”

Jessica Kinnamon, president of the Federalist Society chapter, didn’t immediately respond to an email on Wednesday.

Stegall ended the letter by suggesting his departure “will open a space for rethinking.” He added that he hopes to remain a member of the KU Law family more broadly.

Stegall joined the Kansas Supreme Court in 2014. He was appointed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, and had previously served as Brownback’s chief counsel before a brief stint on the Kansas Court of Appeals. In November, Kansans voted to retain Stegall by a wide margin — 73% to 27%.

He has developed a reputation as a conservative justice in a court otherwise dominated by justices appointed by Democratic and moderate Republican governors. His most publicly well-known opinion is perhaps his scathing dissent in a 2019 decision in which a majority of the court found that the state constitution protects the right to an abortion.

Mark Johnson, an adjunct professor at KU Law who teaches First Amendment and election law classes, said he had believed the controversy over Lorence’s visit had died down when Stegall announced he would no longer teach at the university.

Johnson suggested the situation points to a broader sense among conservatives in academic legal circles that they’re being shut out of conversations.

“It’s unfortunate because he’s such a bright guy and my understanding is he’s been well accepted by the students as a teacher and I think it’s unfortunate that they’re going to be deprived of his teaching,” Johnson said.