Speech Code Must Be Less Strict, Apply to Everyone

Once again, Stanford’s free speech policies may become an issue of contention in coming weeks.

As reported in this issue, Stanford in Government (SIG) is moving forward on plans to bring a number of candidates for Governor of California to Stanford. Gaining approval for the event appears likely – as Tommy Tobin, Vice Chair of Programming at SIG, noted, the attempt to bring in candidates from both sides makes it a non-partisan event. So perhaps for now, Stanford’s speech policies will escape outright controversy.

Unfortunately for other student groups, these same speech policies have caused such a controversy in the past.  Perhaps most famously, the Stanford Democrats were nearly forced into disinviting certain speakers in favor of conservative ones to “balance” the political views expressed at a 2008 election rally urging “NO on [Proposition] 8; Yes on Obama.”

The Stanford Dems had been in accordance with all reasonable interpretations of Stanford’s Political Activities memo. As former Stanford Democrats president Ashwin Mudaliar indicated, “We never at any point used the Stanford logo or attempted to imply that our views were those held by the university as a whole.” Furthermore, the event was held in White Plaza, a designated free speech zone.

SIG’s Tobin appears unconcerned about free speech violations: “I doubt [SAL] would see much harm in this event series as it is sponsored by a non-partisan group with a long history of like-minded political awareness activity.”

No student should have to worry about speech code violations in inviting political candidates to campus, SIG or otherwise.  If SIG can invite candidates for office, so should everyone else – SIG’s non-partisan status and history of political awareness notwithstanding.  Stanford’s speech rules – including limiting space to White Plaza and the lengths it goes to prevent use of the Stanford name – are just bad policies.

The University is a place for the free exchange of ideas.  Students need to be able to express themselves in order to learn from each other.  When it comes to candidates for office on campus, Democrats should hear from Republicans to challenge or strengthen their beliefs, and vice versa.

As Tobin says, “The goal of this event is for students to gain a better appreciation of California politics.”  Gaining such an appreciation is indeed a worthy goal, but one that could still be at least partially filled if the Stanford Democrats wanted to invite Jerry Brown or Stanford Conservative Society wanted to bring Meg Whitman.  Under existing policies, neither would be allowed.

On the other hand, by sponsoring a political activity, Stanford University risks losing its tax-exempt status, a real danger.  However, it is difficult to see how a group of college students – say, the Stanford Democrats inviting speakers to the “NO on 8; Yes on Obama” rally – really represents an official position taken by university administration.  This is an even greater stretch considering the Leonard Law – a 1992 California law that explicitly protects students’ free speech at private educational institutions.

Here’s a more realistic reason to support Stanford’s current speech codes: on such an overwhelmingly liberal campus, restrictive policies are necessary to balance a campus-wide discussion and ensure that all sides are heard and that no single side drowns the rest out.  This concern doesn’t pass muster, either.  Stanford’s policies lead to no discussion at all by limiting speakers to come to campus.  Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, whoever – all are shut down by Stanford’s speech codes.

We wish the best of luck to SIG as they seek approval from SAL to move forward with their gubernatorial candidates series.  But we also want to extend our support not just to SIG, but to all other groups who have encountered challenges in bringing political candidates to campus.  These events are great opportunities for students, a benefit to the University – in fact, Stanford needs to amend its speech codes to encourage more of them.  As a start, though, we hope SIG’s approval moves speedier than the four or five weeks they’ve allotted to deal with SAL.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of The Stanford Review’s Editorial Board and do not necessarily reflect opinions of The Stanford Review or its staff. The Editorial Board consists of the Opinion Editor, the Executive Editor, and the Editor-in-Chief. To submit a letter to the editor or guest op-ed, please e-mail our Opinion Editor, Matt Sprague, at mattfs@stanford.edu.

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