On Saturday, President Trump announced his intention to issue an executive order requiring American universities to maintain “free speech” on their campuses and threatened to withdraw federal funding from noncompliant institutions. Practical considerations aside— it’s not clear how this plan would be enacted — Trump’s message should trouble Stanford students because of the ways it mischaracterizes the state of free speech at schools like our own. These mischaracterizations feed into a narrative that has the potential to stifle, rather than protect, free speech on Stanford’s campus.
First, Trump’s announcement operates on a presumption that intellectual diversity and free speech are lacking at places like Stanford — a presumption that, in my view, is fundamentally false. Student writers have rightfully pointed out that political discourse is alive and well on this campus, and that robust debate occurs not only in the classroom, but also in the activist community, in campus publications, in coffee shops and in dorm hallways. Suggesting anything to the contrary patronizes us as students and scholars and fails to do justice to the sheer amount of intellectual engagement that occurs on this campus every day. If I have learned anything throughout my three years here, it is that Stanford represents anything but a consensus.
Second, the Trump administration’s view that conservatives have been “unfairly targeted” in campus discourse contributes to a narrative that casts the campus free speech debate as a protracted battle between the far left and the far right. This is a dangerously simplistic characterization, one that weaponizes free speech and paints conservative contrarians as martyrs. A “liberal” versus “conservative” dichotomy could not ever possibly capture the diversity of opinion that exists here at Stanford. Such a conception actually threatens to diminish intellectual diversity on campus, as right-wing speakers of dubious academic merit are brought to campus to challenge a perceived liberal consensus. Students who do not identify as strictly “left-” or “right-wing” may feel discouraged to participate in such a polarized discourse.
Moreover, Trump’s message adopts free speech as a rallying cry for the political right. I would encourage students to question that assumption. The movement for free speech on college campuses had its origins in the civil rights movement and sought to make marginalized and oppressed voices heard. So to students who identify on the left of the political spectrum: remember that free speech is ours too. We must remain informed of our rights to speak, to protest and to use our voices to reclaim campus dialogue from those who insist on redefining it in narrow terms.
Finally, we must recognize that while the tightrope between academic freedom and inclusion is a difficult one to walk — I believe that Stanford is still struggling to find its footing — these two goals are not mutually exclusive. In the face of hateful and objectionable speech, it is more important than ever for Stanford students to speak up and affirm the breadth and depth of Stanford’s ideological spectrum in order to ensure that hate represents only an infinitesimal part of it. Last year’s rally in response to Robert Spencer did just that, uplifting marginalized voices and highlighting narratives of inclusion and positivity that overshadowed the speech occurring next door.
Though President Trump may attempt to make free speech a solely conservative issue, free speech concerns all of us, and we must remain informed and care deeply about our right to speak. In response to Trump’s statement, I encourage my fellow students to let their voices be heard and to continue contributing to Stanford’s intellectual diversity.
— Erica Scott ’20, Co-Chair of ASSU Working Group on Academic Freedom
Contact Erica Scott at erica98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.