Why Do We Need A "Director of Academic Freedom"?

Why Do We Need A "Director of Academic Freedom"?

The ASSU, regrettably, is at it again. “It” being something likely inconsequential, but which sounds bad.

As the Stanford Daily reported earlier this month, the ASSU has created a new cabinet position, entitled the “Director of Academic Freedom.” The job, as per the Daily, entails “work[ing] with the University administration to ensure free exchange of ideas while making sure speakers invited by student groups uphold the Honor Code and Fundamental Standard.” (emphasis added)

I am not sure why the ASSU is worried about speakers violating the Honor Code, the set of regulations designed to prevent students from cheating. But I am concerned about policing speakers for violating the Fundamental Standard, which is vague and open to abuse. To quote the standard in full:

“Students at Stanford are expected to show both within and without the University such respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens. Failure to do this will be sufficient cause for removal from the University.”

Maybe, maybe one trusts university administrators with the power to adjudicate such a vague standard (though here’s a NYT op-ed giving us reason to be cautious). But to leave it to a student? I can’t help but be alarmed by that.

The political impetus for this move is clear. When the Stanford College Republicans invited Robert Spencer to campus last year, a group of ASSU senators drafted a bill that would have stripped funding from groups who invited offensive speakers, before receiving legal pushback and shelving the bill. Charles Murray’s appearance at Stanford, some months later, also incited student opposition, though to little avail. Thankfully, the university appears to be on the side of free speech, at least for now. And given that this new position appears to be primarily advisory, it hopefully won’t have much of a tangible impact on our lives.

But just consider for a moment the path the ASSU is taking us down. The world the ASSU wants is one where the people they disagree with, in this case the College Republicans, don’t have the same rights as they do. Not because SCR has really done anything that bad (despite what a cringeworthy slew of Daily op-eds would have you believe). But because they just don’t like them. They don’t like what SCR think, they don’t like what SCR say, and they don’t like that SCR have the right to express their views, too.

I wonder how one would determine whether a speaker is in violation of the Fundamental Standard. The newly appointed Director of Academic Freedom, graduate student Zintis Inde, told the Daily that he wishes to “proactively establish policies and guidelines that can be applied fairly by the Undergrad Senate and GSC to all groups applying for funding.” I struggle to imagine how those guidelines, based around an already confusing set of standards, could be clear or easily measured, but the Review will revisit this story once they are released.

More basically, though, who even cares if a speaker violates the Fundamental Standard, whatever that may mean? If a speaker breaks the law, e.g. by inciting violence or threatening a student, that is a matter for the police. Beyond that, what speaker behavior could merit stripping funding from or otherwise punishing a student group?

If the answer is “whatever Robert Spencer did,” then we are in a bleak place indeed, because for those who went to Spencer’s talk, the majority of his speech was a recitation from the Koran.

In light of the news that SCR have invited Dinesh D’Souza to campus, the Director will face his first genuine test. One might very reasonably find D’Souza distasteful, but that should not be grounds for barring his entry, recommending sanctions for SCR, or any other such punitive measure. How the Director handles the presence of a speaker whose views don’t align with the majority on campus will be telling indeed.

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