I have the right to express a lot of things, and you can choose to read them or not. But where does Stanford University draw the line on our right to free speech?
As a private institution, Stanford University is not directly legally bound to uphold the Constitution. But the “Leonard Law” of California requires that the protections of the First Amendment be extended to students when they are on campus, just as they’d experience off campus.
Still, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gives Stanford University a relatively poor rating, due to policies that encourage “administrative abuse and arbitrary application” – effectively leading, so they say, to the decline of free speech on this campus.
Greg Lukianoff confirms this point. A graduate of Stanford Law School and president of FIRE, he published a book last November titled “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” in which he argues that college campuses are inhibiting free speech and silencing unpopular views.
He contests that both left and right politics are affected and cites examples like the following: A student in Georgia was expelled for a pro-environment collage he posted on Facebook because it apparently showed he was a clear and present danger to campus. Further research proved that the administration was trying to get rid of him and his opinions that opposed the construction of a new campus parking garage. Free speech laws may be subverted to suit the desires of the administration.
In another case, Yale students were banned from putting the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote “All Harvard men are sissies” on a t-shirt because it was viewed as an anti-gay slur, something the students asserted was not true. Ostensibly, this is the case that should put liberals up in arms.
One of Lukianoff’s recurring examples is the proliferation of sanctioned “free speech zones” on campuses; their existence implicitly suggests that other zones of the campus are not free. By the way, Stanford’s White Plaza is a “free speech area,” but you’re supposed to have prior approval from Student Activities Leadership to host events there. Is regulated free speech possible?
Lukianoff’s larger argument under the auspices of defending free speech seems at times to be a lunge to preserve conservative values, to preserve the right to cringe-worthy phrases that most deem politically incorrect. Washington Post columnist George Will recently wrote, “Liberals are most concentrated and untrammeled on campuses, so look there for evidence of what, given the opportunity, they would do to America.”
And for a moment I thought, “Grandpa, when did you start writing a column?”
In case you haven’t noticed, the grumpy white guy brigade is pretty worried about the trajectory of our nation (I’m team grumpy queer lady, in case you seek to generalize me in a column, too). The argument that liberal college educations are ruining the country assumes that the ideals we sustain here are wrong – ideals like having policies against Acts of Intolerance or acts that target people for reasons of religion, sexual orientation or a broad range of identities.
But, like my wise grandpa always does, these guys have a point.
George Will and Greg Lukianoff are ultimately arguing against an Orwellian existence in which students’ actions and intents are censored vigorously. They argue that we won’t be able to have intellectual debates if everyone’s words are intensely monitored and censored and that such policies might be applied arbitrarily.
This is the issue of free speech that threatens silence for both sides of the political spectrum. We’ll never know what we actually think unless we’re forced to defend it in the face of an opposing intellectual opinion. But people do some really stupid and offensive things sometimes, often steeped in a centuries-old understanding of the nation: slavery, abuse of minority populations, extremely anti-gay attitudes. Stupid, off-the-cuff remarks can sting like a heavyweight punch to the heart, and deliberate actions more so.
Are we to erase these instances by legislation and restriction of some kinds of speech? Steps like naming Acts of Intolerance are a good step, even if they have some adverse consequences. As a gay person, I know I’m the beneficiary of a lot of activism that has led directly to policies protecting me and perhaps limiting the “free speech” of others.
Free speech always struck me as the ultimate way to stick it to the man, a radical expression of subversive opinions. But when George Will talks about it, free speech seems like a sly defense of old and offensive ideas in this country. With both fiery young students and curmudgeonly old guys pressing the right to free speech and giving an end-of-days narrative about the world without it, the debate about free speech continues from different sides.
Exercise your right to free speech by emailing Annie at email@example.com.