Stanford Law Student Who Posted Satirical Flier Fights for His Diploma

Stanford University is known for its prestigious law school. A recent controversy on campus has put one student's legal understanding to the test.

Student's Satirical Flier Causes Uproar

The whole debate first began on January 25, 2021. Graduating student Nicholas Wallace was frustrated by the rioting on January 6, so he posted a flier mocking those related to the event. The flier specifically targeted the Stanford Federalist Society. This convervative campus organization includes politicians like Senator Josh Hawley who were criticized for spreading false news about the legitimacy of President Joe Biden's election.

The flier was titled, "The Stanford Federalist Society Presents: The Originalist Case for Inciting Insurrection." It used mock quotes from Senator Hawley and Attorney General Ken Paxton to satirically argue that rioting was justified. Furthermore, the flier jokingly suggested readers start a new riot, saying "Riot information will be emailed the morning of the event." This flier quickly sparked debates on campus. Some felt it humorously pointed out problems with the rhetoric behind the riot while others worried it defamed the Federalist Society.

Federalist Society Files Complaint Over the Prank

As the controversy continued to rage, the Stanford Federalist Society decided to file a complaint with the school's Office of Community Standards. The complaint alleges that Wallace's flier was purposefully misleading. Instead of clearly marking itself as satire, the flier used the Federalist Society's actual logo and event template. By claiming to be from the society itself, the flier caused some people to think its message was supported by the Federalist Society

According to the complaint, several students on campus and many people outside the school believed that the flier was true. Due to the similarities between the fake flier and the organization's real fliers, Wallace's satire had the potential to harm the reputations of the Federalist Society. Especially since it had quotes purporting to be from members who are high-ranking politicians, the flier could cause problems by making people think the Federalist Society openly supported the riots.

Wallace Risks Losing His Diploma

Unfortunately, when a complaint is filed with the school near graduation, the school puts the student's diploma on hold. This caused major problems for Wallace because he wasn't alerted to the issue. Though the complaint was filed on March 27, Wallace didn't find out his diploma was on hold until May 27. This was the final day of his classes, right when Wallace had made plans to graduate alongside the rest of his classmates.

Typically, a university investigation into a potentially problematic prank wouldn't reach national news. However, since the case involved free speech, it's no surprise that legal experts ended up getting involved in the controversy. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education came forward and urged Stanford to release Wallace's diploma.

The line between libel and free speech can be quite thin, so this case has called attention to a common debate in the legal field. Does Wallace's right to free speech let him post satirical fliers, or was his behavior defamatory and libellous? There are concerns that Stanford's policy could be potentially punishing students for free speech. As many have pointed out, Stanford's decision to hold Wallace's diploma could have affected time sensitive job offers or other aspects of the student's career.

A Happy Ending for Wallace

Following the public outcry and the many statements from Wallace, Stanford chose to speed up the investigation. They concluded that the flier was a form of protected free speech. As a form of satire trying to make a political point, the flier does not meet grounds to qualify for libel. Following the results of this investigation, the Stanford Office of Community Standards chose to drop the investigation without further consequences for Wallace. He will be able to receive his diploma and continue with his career as planned.

Ultimately, this whole situation has been a learning experience for Wallace. The student has sent emails thanking his fellow students and the law community for their support. He says, "I hope to work with Stanford in the little time I have left to make sure that no other student is subjected to an abuse of process in this way again, and to develop better protections for its students’ freedom of expression."

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