Free Speech Bill Opposed by President’s Office, GSC

In March, ASSU Senator Adam Creasman and ASSU Vice President Andy Parker submitted a proposition to amend the ASSU Constitution so that “neither the Association nor the University shall, in word or deed, abridge the right of members to freedoms of speech, press, expression, or political advocacy which citizens of the United States are granted by law.” According to co-sponsor Senator Shelley Gao, the proposed amendment was well-intentioned because “to get a more informed political campus community, [free speech] is needed.”

Although a two thirds vote in the ASSU would have put the bill on the ballot during the most recent elections, Senator Creasman later rescinded the proposition because it received strong discouragement from both President Hennessey’s office and the Graduate Student Council (GSC). On March 8, the President’s office issued a message to everyone involved, stating that this proposition “goes beyond the sphere of the ASSU” and that “it is not prudent for the ASSU to pass such a significant and wide-ranging amendment in haste nor for the University to approve it.” GSC President Eric Osborne calls the bill “absolutely naïve” and “born out of partisan undergraduate politics,” and that the GSC would not be in favor of it for “procedural reasons.”

Creasman emphasizes that free speech is restricted on campus, referring to October 2004, when the Stanford Democrats, led by Kai Stinchcombe, were not allowed to host a phone banking event at White Plaza to persuade Independents to vote for John Kerry. Stanford is a 501(c)(3) organization, an IRS tax-exemption provision, meaning that Stanford could lose its tax-exempt status if it advocated for political candidates.

Osborne states that to allow such a bill to pass would open up the University to this risk that status and that the “President’s office would never take it.” However, Creasman believes that there is no such imminent risk, stating that “the IRS has dispersed kind of an understanding that universities are perfectly allowed to allow their students to engage in political activity without necessarily meaning that the university itself is advocating their position.”

The GSC has also called this bill redundant, based on the fact that students already have free speech rights guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States and California law. Osborne also stated that Stanford is generally very liberal when it comes to free speech, limiting only those which may open possibility of legal action against the University.

Creasman, however, believes that free speech is significantly limited and stated that the fact that White Plaza is designated at a free speech zone at specific times “insinuates that the rest of the campus is not.” He also believes that the University has established itself as “an arbiter of which speech is allowed and which is not.”

Osborne also emphasizes that granting free speech rights equivalent to the US Constitution legitimizes a lot of speech that could potentially reduce Stanford’s standards as a university and an educational environment. He also expresses concerns that ASSU would lose political capital if the President’s office struck down the bill. The President’s office has a veto power over any bill voted on by the student body, and Osborne believes that the President’s office will use this veto if a bill threatens the University with even the slightest risk of legal action.

While it was open to severe criticism, especially from the GSC, Creasman admits that his bill was not well-designed, calling it “absolutely flawed,” but defends it by stating that he would seek legal help from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). While he concedes that the proposition needed much work, Creasman said that the draft submitted was merely a “prelude” and that it was open to improvement before actually being put on the ballot.

This is not the first time that concerns have been raised about Stanford’s stance on free speech on campus. In 1995, the Santa Clara County Superior Court ruled against Stanford in the case Correy v. Stanford, expressing that Stanford’s speech code at the time was too rigid. Referring to such previous occurrences – although he did not specifically speak about Correy v. Stanford – Creasman stated, “A student should not have to seek outside legal recourse in order to exercise basic free speech rights on campus”.

A statement from the President’s office explains, “In the very rare instances in which the University permits a limitation of its authority through the ASSU, it is only after significant consultation with VPSA [Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs] who have worked collaboratively with the ASSU.” Creasman, Parker, and Gao have all expressed that they will persist with this initiative, working in greater collaboration with the VPSA to ensure more participation from University authorities.

The Undergraduate Senate has expressed optimism that there is enough enthusiasm on their part and among incoming senators to keep this initiative alive. They believe that more collaboration with the University will help them pass this monumental amendment. Osborne, however, believes that there are no prospects of compliance from the University and that the most the Undergraduate Senate can hope for is a “gentlemen’s agreement,” and not a real enactment of an amendment.

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