Last week, the Stanford University Graduate Student Council (GSC) denied a request from a student group, the Stanford Anscombe Society (SAS), for $600 to bring speakers to a conference on marriage and family issues. Critics of the event—including GradQ, an LGBT group for Stanford graduate students—objected to SAS’s decision to invite several speakers who advocate against same-sex marriage. Campus newspaper The Stanford Daily reports that GradQ members said the speaker list was “inappropriately controversial.”
Unfortunately, statements made by the event’s student critics demonstrate a failure to appreciate that universities are meant to foster debate, which means that inevitably students will encounter ideas they disagree with, even those they consider “inappropriately controversial.”
The Stanford Daily relays concerns from students who were opposed to funding the event:
Bringing the speakers to Stanford would threaten the safety of campus for the queer population, according to Brianne Huntsman … .
“A lot of students who are queer come to Stanford because it’s one of the most LGBT-friendly places in the world,” Huntsman said. “I grew up in Utah, where it was really conservative and a lot of us come from similar backgrounds, and we feel that we every time we go home. Stanford is supposed to be a safe space for us.”
If credible (but hitherto unreported) evidence of a threat of violence at the event surfaced, a concern about safety might be a legitimate reason for keeping the speakers off campus. What is unacceptable, however, is citing “safety” as a pretext for silencing others based solely on their viewpoints. Speaking with The Stanford Daily, one GSC member defended the council:
“This issue walks a very fine line between the freedom of speech and the discrimination of a minority, but no one has anything but the right intentions in mind,” [Eduardo] González-Maldonado said of the GSC members’ votes.
Just as there’s a distinction between expression that makes some listeners uncomfortable and expression that constitutes a true threat to a listener’s safety, there is a difference between advocacy for certain policies and unlawful discrimination. The speakers at issue will be discussing their positions, not denying students rights on the basis of status. Nor do they have the power to do so. (Stanford will not, we can safely assume, start taking action against LGBT students upon the arrival of these visitors.)
Administrators (and even some students, as seen here) often claim that unconstitutional restrictions on speech are meant to protect students, not punish them. But censors’ seemingly good intentions don’t change the analysis regarding what expression is and is not protected.
Stanford is a private institution, so it is not legally bound by the First Amendment. This incident, however, impedes one of the chief purposes of the university, runs counter to the spirit of California’s “Leonard Law,” and undermines the benefits of student activity fee systems.
First, all students should be afforded the opportunity to hear directly from those with whom they disagree—a chance they’re denied when debate is stopped before it starts. Engaging with opposing viewpoints is an important skill and a crucial component of a modern education. After hearing the other side, students might be surprised to find their opinions altered. Or they might be left even more certain of their initial beliefs—but with a better understanding of the opposite viewpoint, and thus better arguments against it. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that the American university is uniquely the “marketplace of ideas,” not a closed system where students and faculty are confined to a set of orthodox views. By hindering SAS’s ability to host this event because of the opinions of its invited speakers, GSC has harmed that marketplace.
Second, private non-sectarian universities in California are bound by the Leonard Law, which prohibits them from disciplining students for speech that would be protected under the First Amendment at a public school or off campus. As a practical matter, GSC is a governing body with significant control over student events, so a denial of funding can have the same effect as outright censorship. GSC should, therefore, aim to uphold the principle underlying the First Amendment and the Leonard Law—that all ideas should be welcome to compete against each other openly, rather than being left subject to a majority’s vote to silence some and promote others.
Finally, as the Supreme Court noted in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 839 (1995), the purpose of the university collecting and disbursing student activity fees “is to open a forum for speech and to support various student enterprises … in recognition of the diversity and creativity of student life.” Decisions not to fund events with unpopular viewpoints diminishes the robust benefit that this system is meant to provide.
SAS will seek funding from outside organizations in order to host the conference, but GSC should reverse its decision not to provide funding based on the topic of the event. However the event is funded, FIRE hopes Stanford students will seize the opportunity for discussion and debate.
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