Why do I bring this up now? Two recent events at Stanford have brought the question of insulting and offensive speech to the forefront of campus dialogue again. First, there was the controversy over “Fighting Harbaughs” T-shirts being sold by an ’04 alum, which depict our illustrious coach wearing a Native American headdress. As Alex Katz reported on this blog earlier this month, the Stanford American Indian Organization has filed an official complaint under Stanford’s Acts of Intolerance Protocol. And right before Thanksgiving break, Ujamaa staged a mass walkout from Gaities in protest of the annual production’s insulting treatment of various communities on campus. These incidents beg the question: how should Stanford deal with speech-based “acts of intolerance” without violating its students’ rights to free speech?
I should make my personal opinion clear: I don’t think the “Fighting Harbaughs” T-shirts are appropriate. I think that the educational and sporting communities could do a much better job listening to and understanding the perfectly reasonable objections that Native people raise to the use of mascots which play on stereotypes about American Indians. And while I didn’t see Gaities- specifically because I knew that the show would be viciously mocking my religion- I’m sure that it was very offensive- isn’t it always? The question here isn’t about the appropriateness of students’ (and alums’) actions, it’s about the proper response from the university.
Under the court decision I referenced above, I think it’s quite clear that Stanford cannot, legally speaking, take any disciplinary action against any student who wears a “Fighting Harbaughs” shirt, or against the writers of Gaities. And the administration, I think, is well aware of this fact. Stanford will not take any official action (besides maybe an irritated press release). And I think that this is unquestionably the right course of action.
Freedom of speech is not something to take lightly. An administrative body given the power to punish or restrict even the most offensive or unpopular forms of speech will almost inevitably attempt to expand its jurisdiction and overuse its power. A Stanford University which has the right to forbid a student from wearing a shirt caricaturing a Native American could quickly become a Stanford University with the power to forbid a student from expressing his “unorthodox” views on marriage and sexuality, or a Stanford University which could punish a campus publication for agitating against the use of racial preferences in admissions. It is simply too dangerous to trust a governing body to determine what speech is too “offensive” or “insulting” to pass muster. So while I may loathe the fact that Gaities mocked and blasphemed my God, and while someone else may hate the fact that members of the Stanford Conservative Society can publicly attack the idea of gay marriage, I think we can all agree that these are small annoyances compared to the prospect of an administration which might someday decide that our views are too “offensive” to be allowed.
Does this mean we have to sit back and accept every insulting or outrageous thing that any random schmo on campus decides to say? Absolutely not. The wonderful thing about freedom of speech is that it goes both ways. Ujamaa’s response, I think, is a wonderful example of the right thing to do. The dorm exercised its own freedom of speech and association to register its strong objection to the content of Gaities. It acted within the marketplace of ideas; it acted to educate and persuade while respecting the autonomy of others. We ought to make our views known when we’re offended or insulted. What we ought not do is call out for Big Brother- be it Stanford or the federal government- to protect us from being offended. And I have full faith that the Stanford community will debate these incidents and their ramifications openly and freely, and that maybe- just maybe- some minds might be changed.