Speech Too Partisan for Stanford

College campuses have always been a natural home to political activity. This year, mid-term congressional elections and 36 gubernatorial elections will likely rekindle students’ interest in American politics.  Stanford in Government (SIG), a nonpartisan student organization, has plans to hold a series of events in which candidates of California’s upcoming gubernatorial election will come to speak on campus. The greater question remains, however, as to whether or not the University will find such lively political activity beneficial to its students and affiliates.

“The goal of this event is for students to gain a better appreciation of California politics,” said Tommy Tobin, Vice Chair of Programming at SIG. “The Governor Series seems like a natural outgrowth of our non-partisan political awareness activities that we’ve been providing on campus since the 1960s.”

Nearly as old as SIG itself are University policies specifically designed to discourage student organizations from publicly expressing their partisan views.  Guide Memo 15.1 can be found attached to Stanford’s Policy for Partisan Political Activity and states, “While all members of the University community are naturally free to express their political opinions and engage in political activities to whatever extent they wish, it is very important that they do so only in their individual capacities and avoid even the appearance that they are speaking or acting for the University in political matters.”

According to the University’s administration, this restriction is a necessary condition enforced to help maintain the University’s tax-exempt status.  Any sort of contribution, monetary or in the form of lobbying, endorsing a political candidate or ballot measure is strictly prohibited; the University strongly encourages all political activity to be nonpartisan. However, this request is naturally difficult for students to accept.

In November 2008, the Stanford Democrats – in conjunction with the “NO on 8” student movement and the Students for Barack Obama group – held a rally they named “NO on 8; Yes on Obama.” Prominent Democrats were scheduled to attend, including Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, Steve Westly (former State Controller), and Professor Larry Marshall, a close personal friend of Mr. Obama while working with him in Chicago. Despite the clear significance of the event for students’ political activism, the event’s planning encountered obstacles.

“Because the University cannot openly endorse political views or candidates, we, as a group that is affiliated with the University, always seem to have our hands tied with these sorts of events,” said Ashwin Mudaliar, then president of the Stanford Democrats. “The OSA [Office of Student Affairs] wanted our event to be nonpartisan, which they had expressed in conversation.”

Then, mere days before the event was to take place, Nanci Howe, Director of the OSA (now Student Activities and Leadership, or SAL), resurfaced these concerns. “She wanted us to invite two liberal speakers and two conservative speakers, essentially disinviting some of the Democrats who had already made commitments.” He explained that had the Stanford Democrats been forced to follow her requests, the purpose of the event would have been entirely defeated.

As a sort of retaliation, Mudaliar and others involved in organizing the rally, including former Stanford Democrats President Kai Stinchcombe, who had had a history in dealing with Stanford’s stringent speech policies, were forced to contact allies, the most useful of which was the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“If the ACLU hadn’t gotten involved and talked with Stanford’s General Counsel, then the event would not have gotten off the ground,” explained Mudaliar. By Saturday November 1st, three days after Howe had brought up problems concerning the event, Stinchcombe confirmed, as backed by the ACLU, that the event would go on as planned. According to Mudaliar, prohibiting the event would have violated California Education Code Section 94367, more commonly known as the Leonard Law – a law that was enacted in 1992 to protect students’ free speech at private educational institutions.

The University is not without legal reasoning in its intervention. As stated in its Policy for Partisan Political Activity, “No person may, on behalf of the University, engage in any political activity in support of or opposition to any candidate for elective public office, nor shall any University resources be used for such purpose.” Additionally, “Neither the name nor seal of the University…be used on letters or other materials intended for partisan political purposes.”

Contrary to what the OSA believed however, Mudaliar argues that the proposed rally did not specifically violate either of these rules.

“The event was not called ‘Stanford Says NO on 8, Yes on Obama’ and 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,” said Mudaliar.  He further explained that most of the advertising for the event was done by the NO on 8 campaign and Students for Barack Obama, not the Stanford Democrats who bear “Stanford” in its name.

The final hurdle for the event occurred on the actual day, about ten minutes before the first speaker was to stand at the podium on the steps leading up to Old Union. Howe had told the organizers that they were not allowed to plaster posters of Barack Obama at the event location; instead, they had to have students hold up the posters themselves, standing five feet away from the steps and well within the free speech boundaries of White Plaza – in effect only between noon and 1:00 p.m. The posters did not contain any trace of the Stanford name or logo.

Given Stanford’s history in attempting to regulate student political life, questions have been raised whether SIG’s gubernatorial series will go on as planned, or encounter comparable obstacles. Tobin, however, does not believe that Stanford speech policies will provide any conflict in their planning process.

“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,” Tobin said.

Furthermore, Tobin says he believes that “the fear that Stanford would seem closely aligned with a political party, thus losing its tax-exempt status…is a real fear on the part of the administration.”

Despite differences in the nature of the SIG event and the 2008 rally, much of Stanford’s restrictive, often vague speech codes are still in place, having not yet evolved from the talks with the ACLU. As a consequence, event planning still has its challenges.

“We will be meeting with SAL early in the quarter to clear the possible hurdle of free speech concerns regarding this event, concerns that we had previously considered of little consequence,” said Tobin. Despite his confidence, Tobin told the Review that SIG has budgeted four to five weeks in the planning process with SAL—a considerable chunk given a 10-week long quarter.

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