The question of free speech on college campuses is a contentious one. Most recently, the conversation at Stanford has been dominated by the Stanford College Republicans’ (SCR) decision to invite controversial author and blogger Robert Spencer to speak to students, and the subsequent decision by the Undergraduate Senate of the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) to fund the event with an appropriation of $6,000 of student money.

The validity of the event itself, and the legitimacy of Spencer’s academic credentials, are up for some debate. Spencer runs the blog Jihad Watch and is the author of 17 books, the most recent of which is titled Confessions of an Islamophobe and is scheduled for release later this month. Spencer’s rhetoric, which largely centers on radical Islamic terror and often asserts that there is an inherent violence in the Muslim faith, has been widely criticised both on and off campus: The Southern Poverty Law Center has classified Stop Islamization of America, an organization he co-founded, as a hate group.

SCR did not respond to requests for comment, although they did release a statement in the Stanford Review which articulated their motivations, calling Spencer “a sorely needed perspective to an important conversation about international security.” Their statement expressed a desire to “ignite a spirited discussion,” and for the event to be respected as an exercise of free speech.

Amidst this ideological sparring and the drama of controversy, it can be easy to overlook the specific policies within the administration and the student government that facilitated the event and will continue to allow similar events in the future. It’s worth stepping back and examining the process by which the student body was obligated to pay for Spencer’s appearance on campus, arguably against its will.

For one, the University maintains that it is committed to protecting free speech, while also demonstrating comfort with criticizing speech it disagrees with. Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell released a joint statement last Tuesday reaffirming that “as part of the university’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas, when organizations within our community genuinely want to hear an outside speaker, we support their efforts as long as university policies are followed.In an email, Associated Director and Dean of Student Activities and Leadership Nanci Howe echoed the same university policy, which essentially does not recognize “hate speech” as distinct from other forms of protected speech.

“Certain types of speech are not permitted under university policy—for example, threats of harm that constitute a hate crime, instances of unlawful harassment, or speech that disrupts classes or other university functions,” Howe said. “The university’s commitment to the free expression of ideas means that it does not otherwise restrict speech within the university community, including speech that some may find objectionable. In other words, it is not the role of the university to review the content the proposed speech on a case by case basis.”

Last Thursday, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole and Dean for Religious Life Jane Shaw released their own statement, in which they denounced “viewpoints of intolerance and hatred as antithetical to our core belief in the dignity and value of all peoples.” However, they also maintained that Spencer’s presence on campus constituted protected speech.

For the Undergraduate Senate, which is responsible for funding all undergraduate student organizations, the situation was regarded as unfortunate but unavoidable.

“Our hands are tied at times,” Senate Chair Kojoh Atta (‘20) said after the Senate meeting on Tuesday, which seemed to sum up the consensus of the group.

More specifically, the Senate felt it had no choice but to begrudgingly approve on Oct. 17 the SCR’s request for $6,000 to put on the event. In a statement Atta read Tuesday, the Senate condemned the decision to invite Spencer on campus but claimed that it had no choice when it came to granting funds.

“In this circumstance, it was our understanding, confirmed by certain university officials, that this would constitute a form of protected speech,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Gabe Rosen (‘19) said after the meeting. “So we felt in that regard a bit more obligated to make sure they got funding.”

One major consideration that was referenced but never directly confronted during the Senate meeting on Tuesday was the fear of a lawsuit, which has haunted the administration since Stanford became in 1995 the only university to be successfully sued under California’s Leonard Law—legislation which stringently protects the free speech rights of students. In their statement, the Senate insists that it must “act in compliance with Supreme Court decisions, federal law, and California statutes regarding free speech on college campuses when making decisions.”

The vast majority of the money the Senate approved—about $4,270—was appropriated for security services. The Fountain Hopper reported that the total cost of security will be about $7,300. The Senate typically defers to the Department of Public Safety in terms of security costs, although Atta added that it could be a good idea to review Senate funding guidelines moving forward.

“If your [security]funding is that much, then what does that mean about the person that’s coming, right?” Atta said.

The appropriated money is, crucially, student money. All Stanford students are automatic members of the ASSU, and unless they choose to waive it, they pay a quarterly fee which goes directly toward the funding of student organizations. The Senate reviews numerous funding requests from undergraduate groups each week and either rejects or approves them, sometimes with modifications.

However, the student body has the democratic right—at least in theory—to prevent their funds from being spent on something they disapprove of. The ASSU constitution dictates that a petition bearing the signatures of at least 10 percent of the undergraduate student body can halt Senate legislation and allow students to vote on it in a referendum, provided the petition is submitted to the Elections Commission within 21 days of the legislation being enacted. Specifically, a successful petition has the power to freeze any funds that have not already been encumbered or expended.

Coterm student Caleb Smith pursued exactly this measure, circulating a petition in the undergraduate community calling for the funds appropriated for the Robert Spencer event to be frozen pending the next election. While he claims to respect SCR’s right to bring Spencer on campus, Smith argued that it is not an appropriate use of student money.

“By having our student fees being approved by people we elected, we now have this element of responsibility for this kind of rhetoric that would be found in the event,” Smith said. “And I felt that this was something we really shouldn’t do, and it’s incumbent on us to take action to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Smith said that it’s important to provide equal funding to diverse opinions, but that Spencer “is actively demonizing a group of people who are our friends and neighbors in the Stanford community” and that such a case “ought to be treated differently.”

The petition, which was submitted on time and vastly exceeded the signature requirement, was a success in all ways save one: It was ultimately incapable of preventing the event from being funded. A contract signed on Oct. 27 had already encumbered the money, so the Senate’s decision stands.

This situation brings to question the practical power of the student body’s right to petition ASSU legislation, which Atta seemed to concede after the meeting on Tuesday.

“I definitely think there is an onus on the Senate to thoroughly discuss these issues before we even decide on them, in the public,” Atta said. “And going forward we want to make sure that we are publically discussing, like if another controversial figure or speaker or subject should come up again, we’re thoroughly discussing it before we make any final decisions on that. I definitely think that’s something the Senate should be doing going forward, so people have enough time.” He said, however, that any “definitive prescriptive policy changes” would need to be discussed internally.

The event, scheduled for Nov. 14, will continue as planned. A coalition of student groups calling themselves Stanford Against Islamophobia, including the Muslim Student Union, Black Student Union, and Students for Justice in Palestine, has formed in opposition. The coalition published an open letter in the Stanford Daily directed at the SCR on Wednesday and will be hosting a rally the night of the event. There has also been discussion among some students of protesting the speech or organizing a walk-out.

This is not the last time that Stanford will have to grapple with questions of free speech. But it is worth examining whether the system that handles these issues is effective and democratic, and whether this controversy will prompt any soul-searching within the ASSU.

“I personally am not afraid to have serious discussions about the people that are invited on this campus,” Atta said. “It definitely does depend on a case-by-case basis. You definitely do see some people who have malicious intent in who they invite to campus, like they want to elicit a strong response, they want to make this place some kind of battleground.”

Further reading

Stanford Review
Stanford Daily
Stanford University – Notes from the Quad
Jihad Watch

Roxy Bonafont is a freshman campus news reporter for Stanford Politics.