As Jason Willick wrote, it is easier to depict the “courageous Charlie Hebdo journalists” as martyrs for freedom of speech than the “raunchy frat brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon,” but to him the events are comparable. In both cases, according to Willick, a group was punished for making unpopular and possibly obscene expressions — speech protected by the First Amendment. While I share Willick’s concern that modern universities are difficult places to hold a minority opinion, I think he oversimplifies SAE’s situation in order to make his point and obscures the details of the case.
The thrust of Willick’s argument is familiar in discussions of freedom of speech. Even if we hate what a group is saying, they have the right to say it, and that right is vital to fostering debate and diversity of opinion on campus. California’s Leonard Law makes it illegal for private universities in California to punish students for constitutionally protected speech. As Willick wrote, “in a free society, the authorities do not police the contents of the jokes adults tell each other at parties. Official suppression of offensive ideas doesn’t make them go away, but it does deaden public discourse by making people afraid to question taboos and speak to people they disagree with.”
If the Stanford administration’s decision to evict SAE had rested solely on their speech, Willick would be spot on. However, according to Stanford’s official press release, the issue was not that simple. The problem I have with Willick’s analysis is that he boils down the case thus: “[t]he administration disciplining students for telling jokes that are protected by the First Amendment.”
As stated in the press release, “[t]he investigation found that an event hosted by the fraternity last spring, and the fraternity’s insufficient response to concerns about the event, created a hostile environment for female students in violation of the university’s sexual harassment policy” (emphasis mine). The release goes on to say “that leadership of the house missed multiple opportunities to prevent, stop or appropriately respond to the harassment, even though concerns were raised in advance based on a similar SAE event that occurred the previous year.” See the Stanford Daily’s write-up for more details.
In the decision to suspend their housing, Stanford had to analyze not only the particular event in question, but also SAE’s behavior surrounding it. As the press release indicated, SAE’s leadership was uncooperative with the University at addressing multiple allegations of misconduct towards women.
The pertinent clause of the Leonard Law states:
“No private postsecondary educational institution shall make or enforce any rule subjecting any student to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech and that, when engaged in outside the campus or facility of a private institution, is protected from governmental restriction by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 2 of Article 1 of the California Constitution” (emphasis mine).
In order to make the argument that Stanford violated that law, it must be proven that the administration punished a group “solely on the basis of conduct that is speech.” The press release makes clear that this was not the case. The fraternity is not being evicted only because of the party, but also because the organization refused to cooperate or open a dialogue with the university regarding multiple allegations of misconduct — including accusations of sexual assault and drugged drinks at parties. While the recent allegations of drugged drinks were unable to be substantiated, the press release states that “their number and nature add to the university’s concern for ensuring the safety of Stanford students.”
Willick identified another example of what he believed was a violation of the Leonard Law in an article he wrote for the Daily regarding the Stanford Anscombe Society’s conference planned for early April last year.
The story in short, is as follows: The Stanford Anscombe Society is a small, socially conservative group on campus that had planned a conference promoting “traditional marriage.” Initially, the Graduate Student Council had agreed to fund $600 for the conference, but later revoked the funding. Ultimately, the event went through as planned, albeit without funding from the GSC.
Willick is convinced that the Council’s decision to revoke funding was another example of an unpopular view being silenced by the majority, or of a group punished being punished for their opinion. Again, I believe that Willick oversimplified the issue at hand.
The minutes for the Graduate Student Council debate are public, and I suggest that anyone interested take a look themselves. Willick fundamentally missed the point by arguing that this was issue of censorship. The debate was not about censorship, but about whether or not the Council would provide funding for a group. Rescinding funding is not a punishment; it was an expression that the Council did not support the Anscombe Society. The point was succinctly summarized by Council-member Eduardo González-Maldonado who said, “No one is denying SAS the right to free speech. We are not discussing censorship; we are discussing the potential of endorsement.”
Willick neglected to mention the Council repeatedly offered to co-sponsor a joint event with SAS. As a speaker named Vivian stated, “When an event is potentially religious or has the potential to make a community feel threatened, it has to be inclusive… What is needed is the joint event as proposed, [as it]would fulfill need for divergent views. As a body, with our own guidelines, we need to fund events that are inclusive, and support divergent views in a way that is constructive, because right now this is not constructive.”
The fact of the matter is that the Anscombe Society did not want to cooperate with the Council to change the format of their event with respect to the Graduate Student Council’s guidelines of inclusiveness. The Council was not trying to silence the Anscombe Society; it was trying to create an event that would allow students to hear more than just one view. When Willick concluded “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,” he misrepresented the facts. The Grad Student Council wanted dialogue and debate, which the Anscombe Society thought would ruin the point of their conference.
Central to Willick’s argument is the point that discussion can never be “unsafe.” He wrote: “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.”
It is true that feeling insulted and being unsafe are different things, and the right to offend people is vital to the right to free speech. What I’m worried about is that Willick completely overlooked the rationale that the Council used to define the panel as unsafe, and the evidence that they did cite, on multiple occasions, to back up their point.
Ryan Anderson, one of the panelists, on multiple occasions had advocated for sexual conversion therapy, a “treatment” that the American Psychological Association has said can lead to depression and suicide. Students believed that spreading this idea was “unsafe” not because it made them uncomfortable, but because it had led others to kill themselves. Whether or not that means that Anderson’s words would create an unsafe environment is another debate, but it is unfair to report the story without including the arguments on both sides.
Ultimately, regardless of the discussion of the possible danger of Anderson’s words, it is important to note that neither the University administration nor the GSC attempted to stop the Anscombe Society panel. There is a difference between punishing a group and refusing to support that group; in the case of Stanford Anscombe Society, the Graduate Student Council clearly was doing the latter.
The Stanford student body should support having a diversity of opinion represented on campus. We should be worried if the student government tries to shut down the minority’s opinion, and we most certainly should be worried if the administration were to try and silence a group — but I think that has yet to happen. Willick has identified a troubling problem — the power of the majority to oppress the voice of the minority — but the examples that he focused on are more complex than his reports imply, and ultimately do not support his argument.
Dan Ruprecht is a sophomore studying history.