Earlier this year, Harvard Crimson columnist Sandra Korn ignited a national debate by arguing that Harvard should “give up on academic freedom”—or more precisely, give up on academic freedom for those who challenge her worldview. “When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue,” she said bluntly. “Why…should we put up with research that counters our goals?”
One Crimson commenter pointed out that in a previous age, Galileo’s deeply offensive heliocentrism probably would not have survived Ms. Korn’s censorious scrutiny. But Korn has trouble finding any actual examples of people who should be censored at Harvard in 2014, as the political scientist Patrick Deneen observed. The only person she can come up with is Harvey Mansfield—“a single conservative octogenerian,” whom, Korn suggests, should not have been allowed to publish one of his books. Right-wing views are so rare on modern elite campuses that left-wing calls for censorship are barely necessary.
A similar irony is present in the activities of anti-free speech activists on Stanford’s campus. Those few campus organizations they want to suppress are small and politically powerless, so the anti-free speech activists have no problem overpowering them with their superior political muscle.
I’m referring, most recently, to the Graduate Student Council’s decision to revoke the funding for a conference hosted by the Stanford Anscombe Society, a little-known, socially conservative group. The conference in question, called “Marriage, Family and the Media,” is intended to “promote the values of marriage, family and integrity to the broader popular culture.” The Council initially granted the Anscombe Society’s request for $600 dollars of funding, but withdrew the money last month after an outcry over the Anscombe Society’s view that marriage is “a union, until death, between one man and one woman,” as well as the list of speakers, which includes scholars who have argued against same-sex marriage.
For those of us who care about free inquiry and a marketplace of ideas—that is, those of us who think the Enlightenment was a good thing and the American liberal tradition has it right—the minutes from the Council meeting are truly painful to read. The President of the Undergraduate Senate, Ben Holston, said “this event as it stands… given that they have said the event is supposed to ‘promote one-man, one-woman’…is unacceptable on [the] Stanford campus.” This is a truly remarkable statement: The tiny minority of Stanford students who oppose same-sex marriage aren’t just wrong—they shouldn’t even be allowed to make their case.
Brianne Huntsman, who organized opposition to the event, said that “Stanford is supposed to be a safe space” for gay and lesbian students and that the event would make Stanford “unsafe.” Naturally, she cited no evidence that the event would threaten anyone’s safety. That’s because, as people who follow these types of debates know, “unsafe” can be an Orwellian code word—a trump card that anti-free speech activists sometimes use to shut down ideas they disagree with. As one of the invited speakers, Ryan Anderson, noted wryly on Twitter: “I lectured at Stanford’s Law School last year. No one’s safety was harmed in the process.”
Moreover, one member of the Council, Eduardo Gonzales-Monaldo, said the student government “would not fund any event that makes anyone feel unwelcome or uncomfortable.” This is an absurd proposition. If it were upheld in practice, it would mean that political student groups—from the Students for Palestinian Equal Rights to the Stanford Libertarians—would be virtually unable to hold any events at all. Any students who claimed offense would have veto power, and political dialogue on campus would wither and die.
The question that bewilders me most about these students’ intolerance of dissent on this issue is: What are they afraid of? The vast majority of Stanford students—myself very much included!—support same-sex marriage rights. The reason we support same-sex marriage rights is because its proponents have made a much more compelling case—not because they systematically suppressed those who disagreed. Indeed, for much of its history, the gay rights movement has been a victim of unconscionable political censorship. The Council’s attempt to suppress this conference is a betrayal of the principles of tolerance and fairness that the gay rights movement has always embraced.
To make matters worse, the lobbying effort by Stanford’s anti-free speech activists led the university administration to impose an additional $5,600 dollar “security fee” on the event, even though the Anscombe Society never requested any security. After a media outcry, the administration “found” funds to pay for security. But the Council continues to withhold the $600 that it initially granted the group.
As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has pointed out, the Council’s action may well be unlawful under California’s Leonard Law, which prohibits universities from engaging in viewpoint discrimination in the distribution of funds collected through student fees.
So it is disturbing that the Council can get away with this. But it is even more disturbing—and ominous for the future of our democracy—that Stanford’s student leaders all seem to agree that suppression and coercion, rather than dialogue and debate, is the appropriate response to dissenting ideas.
Contact Jason Willick at firstname.lastname@example.org.