In Refreshing Turn, Student Senate Champions Free Speech

In Refreshing Turn, Student Senate Champions Free Speech

Historically, The Review has had a tenuous relationship with the ASSU, Stanford’s student government. We’re often their most fervent critics when it comes to the elections process or the creation of new cabinet positions that infringe upon free speech. But as much fun as it is to criticize the Farm’s young politicos, it’s worth praising the Senate when they do something good — or in this case, reject something bad.

Two weeks ago, outgoing ASSU President Shanta Katipamula and Director of Academic Freedom Zintis Inde introduced a “bill to require statements on freedom of speech from voluntary student organizations (VSOs).” The content of the bill seemed relatively harmless, if unnecessarily cumbersome, at first. It would require all student groups to read a paragraph-long statement about free speech and inclusion before speaking events and place that statement on all event advertisements.

A closer look at the bill, however, reveals darker intentions. It would establish “a reporting form whereby individuals may submit evidence of advertisement materials” that fail to include the event statement. The penalties associated with producing wrongly-formatted flyers are harsh. Distribute just four flyers without the ASSU-approved event statement over a two-year period? Under this new legislation, the ASSU could defund your group for a year.

Article I of the ASSU constitution states that “The Association shall enact no legislation … abridging the freedom of speech.” That means if the ASSU wants to infringe upon the free speech of student groups, it must cloak its intentions behind bureaucratic committees and reporting mechanisms.

Further, Stanford’s event policies supercharge the power of any bill that enables the ASSU to defund groups. When VSOs plan speaking events “with potential for disruption,” at least half of the funding for that event must come from the ASSU. This gives the Senate effective veto power over any speaker that comes to campus. Without the Senate’s stamp of approval, political groups are not allowed to host speakers. They can only raise 50% of event funding from outside sources, and 50% of 0 is still 0. That’s why it is important that the penalty for creating errant flyers be loss of funding: it would empower the ASSU to silence organizations arbitrarily, while pretending to merely serve as the flyer police.

It’s both surprising and encouraging, then, that the Senate did not pass this bill while their peers were too busy dartying to notice. Give the senators credit: most understood the counterproductive nature of “regulating” free speech with endless bureaucracy, and the bill was voted down 8-2.

Let’s hope that this episode marks a turning point for the ASSU. The first amendment rights of all students are most alive when student government serves its proper purpose — as a safeguard against initiatives that centralize power into the hands of unaccountable individuals and are prone to biased enforcement against political and social minorities.

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