Evelyn Douek: Assistant Professor of Law

Bringing Fresh Ideas and Cutting-Edge Commentary to the World of Online Speech Regulation

Evelyn Douek had only been in the United States for a couple of weeks when she had the chance—as an LLM student at Harvard Law School—to take a course with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

“No one wanted to say anything politically incorrect,” recalls Douek, who is Australian. “I just found it all totally mystifying.” 

Evelyn Douek: Assistant Professor of Law
SLS Assistant Professor of Law, Evelyn Douek

Douek, for her part, didn’t hold back. When Kagan asked for people’s thoughts on a particular opinion from the high court, Douek let fly, criticizing the decision’s “emotive reasoning” even though she agreed with the outcome.

Her “rant,” she recalls, was met with “a bit of silence.”

Harvard Law School professor Martha Minow, who was dean of the school at the time and sat in on the class, says Douek made quite an impression.

“Her ability to quickly and effectively identify arguments, to take on even controversial subjects fearlessly—that stood out,” she says. 

Those qualities—and a talent for digesting and disseminating information about social media content moderation in long-form thought pieces and casual tweets—have propelled Douek to the top of the fast-evolving field of online speech regulation. Before she finished her doctorate in law from Harvard in May, Douek had already been a senior research fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, a visiting fellow at Yale Law School, an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, a regular writer for The Atlantic, and a blogger and co-host of a popular podcast for Lawfare. Now, she’s an assistant professor at Stanford Law School.

“I feel like the cat that has landed in the cream,” she says. “This job is literally beyond the wildest, wildest dreams I had when I arrived in the U.S. six years ago.”

Douek, who earned an LLB from the University of New South Wales in 2013, did not set out to study online speech. In fact, after she earned her LLM in 2017, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do—though she knew she wanted to teach. A friend recommended she pursue a doctorate to “think about things.”

“I was just sort of deferring the decision about what I wanted to do with my life,” says Douek. “That’s the worst possible reason to do a doctorate. It was objectively a terrible choice, but subjectively it worked out wonderfully for me.”

Douek landed on the area in which she is now a leading expert after attending a 2017 conference on fake news at Harvard. The question of how best to regulate online content was—and continues to be—a timely topic, as awareness has grown about the role mis- and disinformation played in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and global events since. Douek began reading everything she could about content moderation and writing as much as she could about developments in that field, including Facebook’s decision to create an oversight board to govern its content decisions. 

“Not a lot of people were writing about that,” she explains. “I found my voice, my own niche. That felt quite encouraging.”

Today, Douek’s voice is consistently sought after on the subject of free speech and the internet. One of her forthcoming papers—Content Moderation as Systems Thinking,” which calls for a systemic approach to online governance rather than a post-by-post review process—has been passed around the physical and virtual corridors of technology companies, and she regularly talks to U.S. and international regulators, civil society representatives, and executives from leading social media platforms. (Douek does not accept money or sign nondisclosure agreements for such conversations.) 

She’s been on a par with professors ever since she entered the field,” says Nathaniel Persily, JD ’98, James B. McClatchy Professor of Law and co-director of the Stanford Cyber Policy Center, which Douek has joined. “She’s staking out positions that are identifiable as her own.”

Douek and Persily both wrote chapters for a forthcoming book about free speech; some of their notable co-authors include Hillary Clinton, former Washington Post editor Martin Baron, and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Sheldon Whitehouse, among others.

Douek, who has launched a podcast at Stanford Law called Moderated Content, won’t start teaching until the spring when she will lead a seminar on the First Amendment and platform regulation.

But the wait will be worth it.

“As a teacher, she is truly world class,” Minow says. “Conversations with her are electric and insightful. I can’t wait to see what she does and says next.”  SL

Rebecca Beyer is a former staff writer and editor for the Daily Journal.