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Are we Charlie? A brief history of free speech at Stanford

On Tuesday, masked gunmen wielding assault rifles stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical publication known for its irreverent satires of religion and far-right politics. The publication’s satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad almost certainly motivated the three suspects in the slaughter.

If they have not already, Stanford students will soon hear of this gory tragedy. We will respond as much of the world responds: with a shake of the head and post of a tweet, an angry Facebook status or perhaps a sincere “Je Suis Charlie.”

These signs of solidarity with Paris are invaluable, but to halt the discussion there would be a disservice not only to the victims of this wanton barbarism, but also to the future of free speech at Stanford.

A History of Speech at Stanford

Stanford’s relationship with free speech is defined by an occasional push-and-pull among students, faculty, the Stanford administration and government to determine how far the boundaries of protected speech should and do extend.

The contemporary history ostensibly begins in 1971. Amid the fervor of the anti-Vietnam movement, The Stanford Daily snapped photos of a protest between police and demonstrators. A violent clash ensued in which nine officers were injured.

After The Daily published photos of the protest and brawl, police barged into the halls of The Daily with a warrant to seize the photos of the alleged crime. The staff objected and eventually brought a civil action against the police, district attorney and judge who issued the warrant.

Although The Daily would lose Zurcher v. Stanford Daily in the Supreme Court, the consequent questions surrounding privacy and the press would lead the U.S. Senate to pass the Privacy Protection Act of 1980. No longer would journalists be required to hand over sources or materials to the police prior to publication. In effect, the Stanford experience helped expand First and Fourth Amendment protections.

However, the Vietnam War also tested Stanford’s limits on what constitutes protected speech. A year after The Daily’s police seizure, former tenured Stanford professor H. Bruce Franklin allegedly led anti-war protestors to occupy Stanford’s computer center. Franklin urged the protesters to resist police efforts, allegedly inciting a riot. In response, Stanford fired Franklin, arguing that he had effectively yelled “fire” in a packed theatre and that such speech is not protected.

Decades after the Vietnam War, Stanford has still struggled to determine the proper boundaries of free speech.

In 1990, Stanford changed the interpretation of the Fundamental Standard, the guiding principles of student conduct. The new interpretation suggested that “personal vilification of students on the basis of their sex, race, color, handicap, religion, sexual orientation, or national and ethnic origin” was prohibited. In other words, Stanford banned insults based on identity.

A group of students would challenge the new interpretation in Corry v. Stanford University. The students argued that the rule violated the Leonard Law guaranteeing free speech in California high schools and universities. The Santa Clara County Superior Court agreed and Stanford reversed its policy in 1994.

In more recent years, Stanford’s dedication to free speech has come under further public scrutiny.

In 2007, Stanford banned media and general public attendance at a Stanford Republicans event. The event consisted of three Arab men who claimed to be former terrorists from the Palestinian Liberation Organization, but who had since converted to Christianity. At UC Santa Barbara, where a similar event had been held prior to Stanford’s decision, some viewers said the event contained “islamophobic rhetoric.”

In 2008, Stanford administrators attempted to prevent the Stanford Democrats, an on-campus political group, from holding a pro-Obama anti-Prop 8 rally in White Plaza. Stanford claimed that university support for such an event might violate laws requiring Stanford to refrain from sanctioned support of partisan political activity. After involvement from the ACLU and meetings with Stanford’s general counsel, the university withdrew its objections to the planned event.

Just last year, however, controversy begot controversy as the Stanford Anscombe Society (SAS) sought to hold a conference espousing its opposition to same-sex marriage. Stanford LGBT and other students protested the event, claiming that the SAS’s position was hate speech.

In turn, the Graduate Student Council voted to deny the group funding, as did the Undergraduate Senate. Soon after, Stanford asked that SAS pay its own $5,600 in security costs, a decision that it later revoked after sufficient national media attention.

The Future of the Relationship

This laundry list of events, although not exhaustive, suggests that the road between free speech and student comfort at Stanford has been a bumpy one.

However, instead of promoting serious public discourse on the issues underlying these controversial events, in limiting who hears them we have given their often indefensible positions undue attention.

The anti-gay marriage positions of SAS, for example, were met with contempt by many on Stanford campus, myself included. Similarly, few would consider telling the distasteful and misogynistic jokes that allegedly contributed to Stanford’s decision to suspend SAE’s housing. But even among us who oppose the content of such speech are many who would gladly fight for its right to be heard (and inevitably defeated) in the court of public opinion.

This article in no way seeks to compare the suffering of Charlie Hebdo to the limitations on the occasional student speech at Stanford. Au contraire, we are lucky to attend an institution that embraces freedom, from its motto to its official policies. Similarly, this article does not seek to defend the content of the often crude and offensive Charlie Hebdo. A separate debate on the usefulness of its crass approach may well be warranted.

But if we are to honor the legacy of Charlie Hebdo on campus, let us do so by discussing the state of free speech at Stanford, and by welcoming those with whom we disagree to campus with open arms and discerning minds. The value of this approach was made clear when the Westboro Baptist Church came to Stanford to preach its message of intolerance and Stanford responded by coming together to peacefully oppose the group.

Only if we resolve to continue and improve Stanford’s commitment to free speech can we rightfully tweet, “je suis Charlie.”

Contact AZ Gordon at zelinger ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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