Statement Regarding Free Speech

by Danny Colligan

[ASSU President] Mr. Gobaud and [ASSU Vice President] Mr. Parker,

A few weeks ago, Provost Etchemendy released a statement in the wake of Westboro Baptist Church's visit to campus. The Provost remarked:

"Why didn't we choose to exclude the Westboro demonstrators from campus? Make no mistake: We could have prohibited the demonstrators from coming onto the Stanford campus. This is, after all, a private university, and Stanford's rights are no different from any other private landholder."

A group of students and I met over the weekend to discuss this development. We found it rather disturbing both that Mr. Etchemendy reserves the right to censor opinions that he finds distasteful and that he has an ignorance of the law as it pertains to free speech and assembly.

Let's take the later issue first. Stanford's rights, as a private educational institution, ARE different from those of other private landholders. Specifically, Stanford is bound by California Education Code Section 94367, commonly known as the Leonard Law. This law states:

"No private post-secondary educational institution shall make or enforce a rule subjecting a student to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside the campus or facility of a private post-secondary institution, is protected from government restriction by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution."

To summarize, the Leonard Law expressly prohibits censorship of student speech, but not the speech of others -- namely, that of faculty, staff, contractors, community members and guests.

But perhaps the more distressing issue is that Mr. Etchemendy feels that Stanford has a right to censor certain opinions expressed on its campus. It is strange that he reserves this right, since in his statement he concedes that drawing the line between speech that is acceptable and speech that is not is a "Role [the University] should not have... Once we go down the road of silencing, rather than refuting, those whose beliefs we consider objectionable, we stray from one of the core values that defines the university."

One might be surprised in light of the Provost's lofty rhetoric to learn that Stanford has drawn the "line" frequently in an attempt to restrict campus speech. I will mention just a few examples. In 2004, the University shut down the Stanford Democrat's planned "Kerry Power Hour" phone bank. In 2003, Stanford attempted to stop the Stanford Review's door-to-door distribution policy. More recently, SAL Director Nanci Howe tried and partially succeeded in curtailing the activities of Stanford Democrats at a political rally in 2008. And let's not forget the 1995 Corry vs Stanford free speech lawsuit which ended up in Superior Court.

This pattern of restriction and censorship will undoubtedly continue unless there is a change in University policy. That is why we have drawn up language we want to see ratified by the appropriate authorities. Our statement reads:

"The University respects the free exercise of speech and assembly by anyone in any manner at any time in any place and will take no actions to infringe upon it."

This statement is followed by other language that solidifies and clarifies this declaration. We also want to see the Fundamental Standard revised such that vague language that could potentially be used to repress dissident opinion is struck out. The call for "order" is one troublesome phrase. Furthermore, we feel that the scope of the Fundamental Standard should be expanded to include all individuals on campus. It seems strange and unfair that students are held to, say, "respect for... morality [and] personal honor" whereas faculty and others are not.

Free expression and assembly are two institutions that everyone benefits from; this is not a niche or partisan issue. We agree with Provost Etchemendy when he says that silencing speech abridges one of the "core values that defines the university." So let's not permit him, or anyone else in the Stanford administration, to do that. We can ensure this outcome by making free speech and assembly for everyone official Stanford policy.

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