Guest Commentary / March 17, 2023

On the Extinction of Courtesy

Words have become dangerous, or egos more fragile, and I suspect the latter. Two incidents come to mind.

By Mark W. Fowler

“Respect is more than giving consideration of one’s feelings. It is showing common courtesy for another human being.” —Tom Baker

I trained as an attorney over 40 years ago at the University of Tennessee College of Law in Knoxville. Geography and economics prohibited the hiring of speakers from, say, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals or the attorneys who had argued cases in front of the United States Supreme Court. The Tennessee Supreme Court did occasionally meet in the lecture hall, and that was a welcome interlude. It is an honor to be invited to speak on a college campus, much more so at a law school because the invitation implies that you have something of importance to say to an audience who may be called on to act upon your content. An invited speaker is a guest to whom hospitality is owed.

Among other things, an education in the law is an exercise in training the mind to see different points of view. The peaceful resolution of disputes between two contending entities requires an ability to see and dissect opposing arguments. This must be done in a gentlemanly manner (the term being dated but apropos). Litigation is preferred to armed combat. Many times I have enjoyed the fellowship of attorneys who hours before were arguing their best to frustrate the interests of my client. Civility is not only a biblical command; it is essential to peace of mind for an attorney. Increasing incivility is one reason I got out of practicing law.

Concomitantly with the rise of colleges affording “safe spaces” and speech codes to avoid hurt feelings and “diversity, equity, and inclusion” training is the right of college students not to be offended by speech of any kind that runs against their sensibilities.


During my childhood, a common saying was, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” an aphorism now extinct in usage and principle. Words have become dangerous, or egos more fragile, and I suspect the latter. Two incidents come to mind. The first occurred last year at Yale Law School, the other at Stanford Law School. Both involved speakers who had taken ostensibly conservative views, or, in the case of Judge Duncan, refused to address a transgender litigant by their preferred pronouns — an offense for which no tolerance or forgiveness may be afforded. A good number of the law students felt compelled to “protest” by being noisily disruptive, holding up signs, blocking the audience’s view, and otherwise providing ample evidence of why the general public despises lawyers.

Now the disruption of these events was defended by some arguing that this was the protestors’ right to free speech. In other words, protestors have the right in the name of free speech to prevent others from speaking or being heard. While these events occurred in private venues, to which the First Amendment does not apply, the principle applies in theory to speech of a kind intended to spark debate, such as at a law school.

Of particular concern is that the speaker at Stanford was Kyle Duncan, a judge from the 5th Circuit Court of the United States. That alone ought to have accorded him a modicum of deference. But to add insult to injury, the dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Stanford rose to publicly lecture the judge, claiming he was disenfranchising the community of their rights. Now, a single judge on the court of appeals has virtually no power to disenfranchise anyone of anything. He or she must get the approval of other judges to agree with his opinion, and if in error, the litigants may appeal to the Supreme Court. So much for a law degree sharpening reasoning skills. The dean of diversity is, in fact, a lawyer.

The deans of both Yale and Stanford harrumphed a tepid apology to the speakers, averring that the disruptions should not have happened and were in violation of the free speech codes at their respective universities. But no disciplinary action was taken against any student.

To the extent the law students disagreed with their speakers, this was an opportunity to use their newly acquired forensic skills to gracefully challenge the speaker. Instead, they threw that away in a petulant display of vapidity. And they were led in this exclusionary action by the dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Thus, they denied themselves and others the chance to hear the arguments, consider them, and change or reinforce their view. Courtesy didn’t die on its own; it was driven to extinction at Yale and Stanford by demagogues.

When these demagogues enter the real world, they may find neither opposing counsel nor the presiding judge impressed with foot-stomping and mau-mauing.

Mark W. Fowler is a former attorney and board-certified physician. He may be reached at [email protected]

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