Suspend the Campers

Stanford’s administration needs to stiffen its wobbly spine, articulate clear rules for protesters, and promptly eject those who do not comply.

Suspend the Campers

Free expression on college campuses, mirroring a bedrock American principle, is a glorious thing. The anti-Israel encampments that have sprouted at dozens of American universities, on the other hand, are nothing but inglorious. When participants misuse the First Amendment to defend their right to seize portions of campus, they humiliate both themselves and the professors who should have taught them better.

Such is the case of Stanford, where a cadre of oversized children has taken over White Plaza—the school’s designated “free speech zone”—to protest Israel’s effort to destroy a murderous terrorist organization. After the encampment formed on April 25th, interim President Richard Saller informed the petulant protesters that “violations of university policy will not be overlooked.” How so? Camping in White Plaza “may be punishable by sanctions up to and including suspension.” Translation: Rulebreakers might be punished by possibly getting suspended.

After quaking in their boots, one can be sure, the protesters elected to stay right where they were. Flabbergasted, Stanford warned once more that the students occupying White Plaza would see their names referred to the Office of Community Standards (gasp) and “should be aware that suspension for one or more quarters is a possible outcome.” What are the other “possible outcomes”?

Suffice to say, the encampment is still alive and unwell—and the situation has not exactly improved in the three weeks since Saller first threatened ambiguous discipline. Five days in, the site was visited by a man who donned a headband worn by the Hamas militants who slaughtered 1,143 Israelis on October 7th. The University felt it necessary to forward an image of this unabashed terrorist sympathizer to federal authorities, but not to dismantle the circus that attracted him.

Stanford’s abject failure to banish the encampment should come as no surprise to anyone versed in deterrence theory. The University has, so far, taken inspiration from President Biden’s flaccid attempts to dissuade America’s adversaries from advancing. On April 12th, the president delivered a simple message to Iran as it prepared to attack Israel: “Don’t.” The next day, Iran fired over 300 missiles and drones at Israeli territory. Biden’s warning flopped spectacularly, of course, because it lacked a credible commitment. Deterrence cannot consist only of “Don’t.” It must instead be: “Don’t, or else.”

James Q. Wilson, one of a few great social scientists, laid out the path for America to escape a crime wave in 1982. Explaining his “broken-window theory,” he noted that “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” Simply put, disorder begets more disorder. Punish lawlessness when it exists on a small scale, and the likelihood of future infractions plummets.

Contrary to Wilson’s wisdom, Stanford’s plan for its encampment is to wait until summer break and let the troublemakers go home. That plan will backfire. If the University permits a group of students to conquer a slice of campus without a meaningful penalty, what will prevent them from reestablishing their tents come September? Even if the war in Gaza has concluded by autumn, the underlying dilemma will not be resolved. There will, inevitably, be another social justice cause. Hence, there will be another tantrum.

College campers enjoy comparing themselves to the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 60s. Good grief. Rosa Parks never tried to negotiate an amnesty deal for her disobedience with the city of Montgomery. Today’s protesters are hellbent on winning immunity for their misbehavior, as evidenced by Harvard’s foolish deal to reinstate suspended students in exchange for deconstructing their encampment. This capitulation revealed that the highest priority for supposedly selfless crusaders is to keep their graduation plans on track.

Should Stanford wish to avert an endless series of campus conniptions, the University of Florida provides a handbook. Its president, former Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, has decided that his college, unlike Stanford, is “not a daycare.” Florida notified its anti-Israel protesters: You are empowered by the First Amendment to speak freely. You are not, however, empowered to treat this university as your personal campground. Students who do so shall be removed from campus and “will receive a 3 year trespass and suspension.”

When actor Ronald Reagan swerved into politics in 1964, he observed that “There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers.” Correct. The simple answer to Stanford’s encampment problem is as follows: If students do not comply with university rules after having been explicitly warned, suspend them. The Classes of 2025 and beyond will be grateful in due time.

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