Free Speech at Stanford

How Stanford can pioneer a new approach to free speech on college campuses.

Matthew Arnold, a nineteenth century cultural critic, proposed “the notion of the free play of the mind on all subjects being worthy of pursuit” in 1864. Since then, society has made massive progress in open discourse, the forum in which this “free play” is possible. However, with the emergence of the concept of “political correctness” (PC), we in the United States seem to be regressing in this area. We have willingly subjugated the rights given to us in the First Amendment to a standard so subjective that its applications are virtually endless. Interestingly, this process has been accelerated at universities, where there has been an emphasis on making all students feel comfortable. While this is not a bad thing in itself, its consequences may be massive.

Presumably, one of the most critical functions of a university is to provide academic freedom for this open discourse, a function severely limited by this overly cautious approach. It is a school’s responsibility to provide safety, not comfort. There is no guarantee of comfort in the pursuit of knowledge. Rather than accelerating the process begun by the “PC movement”, universities ought to be organized such that they are bastions of open discourse, untainted by the politicking that often prevents the purest intellectual pursuit in the “real” world.

In investigating Stanford’s free speech policy, I immediately noticed tension between a desire for open speech and a fear of liability. As students, we can be very thankful for an administration that labors to maintain a culture of academic freedom. At the same time, however, universities are conditioned by liability and, as a result, often have rules in place to protect against the legal and publicity problems protests and the like may cause. When I first read through the materials available to me, I must admit I was appalled by what seemed like a very restrictive set of rules. It seemed as if the university had unnecessarily restricted not only where students could speak out (White Plaza is our official “free speech zone”) but also who could speak there and when.

However, through various interviews, I found the process far less restrictive than I had originally feared. Nanci Howe, Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Student Activities and Leadership department of Student Affairs, explained, “Stanford firmly supports the rights of all members of the University community to express their views or to protest against actions and opinions with which they disagree”. This was only further revealed in her explanations of the various policies. She explained, for instance, that while White Plaza is set aside as a dedicated “free speech zone” for students, the University is happy to work with student groups to facilitate access to other areas on campus if need be.

Certain restrictions, like limiting reservations to one hour per weekday (noon to one), seemed absurdly strict at first glance but proved well thought out after further investigation. The one-hour restriction is actually a restriction only on amplified sound (not general gatherings) put in place to avoid disturbing surrounding classes, for example. Ms. Howe also explained that, with proper planning, amplified sound is also allowed after 5 pm or on weekends.

In fact, after an extensive look at the free speech policy, there is really only one rule I have an issue with: only recognized student groups can reserve the plaza. While I understand the reasoning on the part of the administration, it proves to be a very restrictive policy, because the time and effort it takes to get a student group recognized is daunting. The application process essentially takes an entire quarter, assuming your application is in fact approved. There needs to be some way for students to gather in support or in protest quickly, without having to form a formal group in order to plan it.

However, while it turns out our policies are no more restrictive than anywhere else, I still see two major problems with the current approach to free speech. First, the fact that my initial reaction to reading about the free speech policy was so negative is telling. As Bruce Thornton, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, pointed out in an interview, any daunting steps in setting up an event will provide a “chilling effect”, effectively reducing the likelihood of students speaking up and thereby limiting the aforementioned most critical function of a university.

Samantha Harris, Director of Speech Code Research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), believes ambiguous wording is more than enough to prevent a student from stepping forward. “If White Plaza is actually the only free speech area on campus and prior administrative approval is required, then this is a truly awful and restrictive policy. If not, it is just confusingly worded and needs to be clarified by the administration to ensure that students understand where and when they can demonstrate, distribute literature, and so forth.”

The second and final major problem with our approach is that it is just “ok.” Stanford’s policies do not unreasonably restrict the free speech on campus, but they do fall short of resoundingly supporting the ability of students, faculty and community members to speak out when and how they see fit. As a leader in education, our university is in a position to change the way other institutions approach free speech policy.

You may notice that I have yet to mention the legality of free speech policies, a widely debated and genuinely relevant issue. California’s Leonard Law requires even private universities to uphold the First Amendment (see Corry vs. Stanford). But while free speech zones are “fundamentally unconstitutional”, according to Thornton, this alone should not be the motivating factor behind a change. It is far simpler than that: we have an obligation to lead in this area. Stanford possesses the influence to be a pioneer of rediscovering intellectual discourse on college campuses and it is time we had a free speech policy to match.

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