A series of politically-charged posters placed on — and subsequently taken down from — the walls of Kimball Hall over the past few weeks have sparked debate surrounding free speech and community standards on campus.
The controversy originated on Dec. 15, when a Kimball resident’s immigrant resource poster, which displayed a hotline for alerting family members to immediate U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) activity, was torn off of her door and replaced by a handwritten “#BuildTheWall” sign.
The appearance of subsequent flyers and posters satirizing the original hotline poster – some of which were removed by Kimball staff due to concerns about community standards – has led to heated discourse within Kimball and the wider Stanford community about the scope of free speech.
Stanford administrators have advocated for free speech on campus, as outlined in President Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Drell’s ‘Notes From the Quad’ statement earlier this year.
Timeline of events
According to Andrew Todhunter, Resident Fellow (RF) of Kimball, the unnamed resident who put up the original poster advertising the ICE rapid response resource hotline on her door was “completely entitled” to do so.
When the unidentified person replaced the original poster with the “#BuildTheWall” poster on Dec. 15 — a few days after the original posting — Kimball staff were immediately alarmed that this constituted an Act of Intolerance in their dorm.
“I had never seen anything like it in my close to five years as RF in Kimball,” said Todhunter. “[It was] shocking to all of us, and seemed cruel and deeply intolerant … and quite a hateful thing.”
Kimball staff filed a formal Act of Intolerance with Residential Education, and are still unaware of its official status, according to Todhunter and a Kimball staff-wide email sent to The Daily.
At the beginning of winter quarter, Kimball staff sent out an email which said that Acts of Intolerance were unacceptable in Kimball. The staff chose not to mention this specific incident in order to protect the targeted resident, Todhunter clarified.
On Jan. 20, another ICE hotline poster was torn from the resident’s door. In response to this act, three students – Jessica Reynoso ’20, Mayahuel Victoria Ramírez ’20 and Araceli Alicia Garcia ’20 – printed over 200 more of the yellow ICE hotline posters with the support of Stanford’s branch of Chicanx Student Movement of Aztlán (MEChA). They proceeded to post flyers all over the foyer and in many of the hallways of Kimball.
In a Daily op-ed published last week, these three students expressed that they, along with MEChA, wanted to stand in solidarity with the resident who was targeted. The students also expressed frustration with what they described as a “vague” response from Kimball, in regards to the email sent out to residents.
“We felt that we had to address the situation in a more concrete and explicit way due to the lack of meaningful and decisive action on behalf of Kimball and University staff,” the students wrote in their Op-Ed.
Reynoso, Ramírez and Garcia went on to describe that the lack of response from both the University and Kimball to a “blatantly racist and xenophobic” event was alarming.
“As people who are directly impacted by the hateful rhetoric of the current political climate, and on behalf of our fellow resident who was directly impacted by hateful acts in their own home, we felt that we could not let the issue go unresolved,” the students wrote.
In response to student concerns, Associate Dean of Residential Education Jennifer Calvert wrote to The Daily, “The student staff, RFs and ResEd professional staff are working together to address the incident, respond to student concerns and move the community forward.”
Kimball staff said that they eventually had to remove the plethora of ICE hotline posters from the foyer because they were overwhelming the residence’s entryway. Prior to doing so, the staff consulted with Reynoso, Ramírez and Garcia. The flyers were then returned to the students to redistribute.
However, on Jan. 24, different posters were put up in the residence, which further stirred controversy among dorm residents. These posters satirized the original ICE reporting hotline by offering up a hotline to “report legitimate law enforcement activity” because “beloved community criminals deserve protection from Trump’s tyranny.”
In the context of the original filed Act of Intolerance, staff members wanted to remove the satirical posters due to concerns that they violated community standards of respect, Kimball staff wrote in a jointly-authored email statement to The Daily.
Staff talked to the Residence Dean Lisa De La Cruz-Caldera, who told them that if they collectively felt that the flyers could be seen as an Act of Intolerance to the dorm, that the staff could remove them, according to the email statement.
“The flyers were still anonymous at that point and we were not yet certain about their connection to the previous poster incidents,” staffers wrote in their statement. “As a staff, we felt these flyers constituted an [Act of Intolerance], so per the RD’s communication, we took them down.”
However, following the removal of the satirical posters, the student who put them up – Isaac Kipust ’20 – came forth to Todhunter to ask why they had been removed.
“Here was an issue where there was only one side being represented, so I decided … I could represent another side,” Kipust explained. “Then after I learned more about what the ICE flyers meant, I had come to disagree with my own flyers, but I think it’s just as important for my flyers not to come down, especially by staff members.”
According to Todhunter, staff explained to Kipust that in the context of recent events, the flyers seemed “hurtful and inconsiderate.” However, Kipust argued that the removal of his posters violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
“I went and explained to them that free speech is important,” Kipust stated. “Instead I was told that because it offended people it wasn’t acceptable speech in Kimball.”
Staff members decided to set up a meeting between the involved parties and various ResEd and Kimball staff. However, after the fact, the students and staff involved felt that the meeting was unproductive.
“The dialogue [in the meeting] was enormously uncivil,” Todhunter said. “It was extremely upsetting.”
Reynoso, Ramírez and Garcia expressed in their Op-Ed that the meeting was full of verbal attacks and insults, rather than meaningful dialogue. They also relayed their frustration with the lack of empathy in the discussion for the emotional impact of the postering events, and felt that the context of the original “#BuildTheWall” incident was not sufficiently addressed.
“The resident who created the mocking flyers would not have done so if he was not emboldened by the original ‘#BuildtheWall’ flyer that had been plastered on another resident’s door,” the students wrote in their Op-Ed. “The events and their impact are clearly and intentionally conflated to further inflict fear and hate.”
“The substance of my flyers didn’t motivate me; principle did,” Kipust wrote in a Stanford Review article. “I was determined to fight for every Stanford student’s right to share their opinions in any manner they wish.”
He argued that this constituted dangerous censorship, which violated “Stanford policy, California state law and the Constitution.”
Staff members also expressed dissatisfaction with the results of the meeting.
“Given that all parties felt wronged in different ways, it was difficult to reconcile intent and impact and come to a united resolution,” Kimball RAs wrote.
Afterwards, Kipust proceeded to meet with Cruz-Caldera, who, after speaking with him, concluded that the Kimball staff’s act of taking down the satirical posters violated his free speech, and staff were informed that he would be allowed to put his posters back up.
Cruz-Caldera did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.
Residential Education then released a temporary poster policy, which mandates – among other things – that flyers only be posted on public bulletin boards or doors of a student’s own room, and that they must contain the name of the individual or organization who posts it.
Referring to this policy, Calvert wrote, “We have implemented an interim flyering policy for Kimball to assist in more clearly setting the standards and expectations.”
In their post on free speech, Tessier-Lavigne and Drell emphasized that they viewed the statement as the “start of a conversation,” but to many Kimball residents, including ASSU Undergraduate Senator Chapman Caddell ’20, the conversation in response to these events was unproductive and even, at times, hostile.
“Isaac was well within his rights under the First Amendment and California’s Leonard Law, but his flyers were hardly conducive to a productive debate on immigration policy,” Caddell stated.
Caddell continued on to state that the subsequent discussion in Kimball, especially through their dorm email chain, was “uncivil.”
“We have the right to behave as children, but the responsibility to behave as adults,” Caddell stated.
Todhunter also emphasized his disappointment in the lack of beneficial debate about differing views, which he sees as one of the hallmarks of a college education. He went on to state this his goal is to cultivate an environment of mutual respect, where the focus is on the real-life effect of actions, not their technical permissibility.
“It was saddening and ironic to see the first amendment used to shield, if not an Act of Intolerance – and that remains to be seen – a kind of discourse which is not inclusive, which is divisive, which created very clear and palpable suffering on the part of certain residents,” Todhunter stated.
In contrast, Kipust contends that this situation evidenced a deep misunderstanding of free speech rights by the people who students interact with most often. Kipust emphasized the importance of being able to express one’s point of view, and while he believes that free speech is properly supported by Drell and Tessier-Lavigne, he stated that RAs and RFs are more concerned with “not offending people.”
“They don’t seem to understand that the goal of making people feel comfortable shouldn’t be subordinate to protecting free speech,” Kipust stated. “I think the university needs to do more and I hope they will do more in the future to better execute their free speech policy on a more local level.”
Kimball staff lamented the fact that this could have been a chance for a productive debate about immigration, and instead turned into a dispute over what is allowed on a bulletin board.
“The recent dialogue surrounding free speech on campus has felt increasingly like a debate about how provocative or potentially harmful speech can be before it becomes intolerable,” the Kimball RAs wrote.
They went on to express that the emphasis should not be on the limits of provocation, saying that “to allow such an important issue [as immigration] to fade into the ‘background,’ especially when it involves deep sensitivities about identity, race, status and so on, feels wrong.”
Residential Education wrote to The Daily that they are collaborating with communities across campus to better address this problem in the future.
“These issues are complicated, but it’s important that we confront them as an academic community that promotes the free expression of ideas, as well as the inclusion of people of all backgrounds and perspectives,” Calvert wrote.
Contact Ellie Bowen at ebowen ‘at’ stanford.edu
Vibhav Mariwala and Julia Ingram contributed to this report.