Widgets Magazine


Whippersnappers, curmudgeons and free speech

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 aegraham@stanford.edu.

About Annie Graham

Annie Graham is a junior from Phoenix, Arizona majoring in English. She is a member of the women’s club soccer team, a founding member of Stanford Athletes and Allies Together, a farming SPOT leader, and she tries to call her grandparents often.
  • Dee

    You and this column are the perfect example of the intolerant “tolerant” left. You think everyone can have an opinion as long as it doesn’t disagree with yours. Pathetic!

  • pol_incorrect

    To anybody that has been a student at Stanford but who doesn’t align himself/herself with the liberal orthodoxy promoted top-down by the administration, it is obvious that Stanford is pretty much like a one party rule society. One of George Will’s best columns on the matter concluded http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/will112904.asp ,

    “Many campuses are intellectual versions of one-party nations —
    except such nations usually have the merit, such as it is, of candor
    about their ideological monopolies. In contrast, American campuses have
    more insistently proclaimed their commitment to diversity as they have
    become more intellectually monochrome.
    They do indeed cultivate diversity — in race, skin color, ethnicity, sexual preference. In everything but thought.”

    You might not like it, but there are many of us who, while on campus, opposed the gay rights agenda with respect to the redefinition of marriage. However you didn’t hear any of us voicing our opposition because we knew all too well that there would be repercussions. Same thing about a whole lot of other things. When you hear, as I have, tenured professors unashamedly promoting liberal talking points in science classes/talks (and I am not talking about evolutionary biology here but in solid state or applied math sessions) you know that students are not free to voice their opinions. I cannot even imagine what it might be to be a student in the humanities/liberal arts. Simply put, I don’t think that one should ever seriously consider majoring in said areas at Stanford unless the goal is to be brainwashed with (or reinforce one own’s) liberal ideology. You could get the same result by watching MSNBC day and night (without the academic pedigree of course) for free. This is what elite universities have become in America, expensive indoctrination schools of the Democratic Party for young people.

  • Leftist U.

    Stanford is full of double standards. Most students can’t seem to understand that, though. And why should they- these double standards only serve the dominant liberal agenda.

    For a Halloween “savage” party a couple years back, a minority in my dorm made a point of saying how no one should dress up as a black person. This same person than dressed as a white person, wearing boating shoes and other preppy attire.

    In one of my classes last quarter, a group of minority students threw together “white” and “racist” as if whites were out to screw over everyone else. This group is committing racism far more pernicious than any subconscious racism whites may have.

    I will recognize their right to speak free if they recognize mine. Until then, I will call them out on their hypocrisy.