In a story just breaking today, it appears that Stanford University is going to ban the public from attending an event featuring an “ex-terrorist” merely because the administration has determined it to be “controversial” in nature. When attempting to justify this decision, Stanford spokeswoman Elaine Ray said: “We’re not worried about violence. This is a controversial speaker, and we want to make sure that our students have a constructive dialogue.” (Emphasis added.)
Although Stanford is a private institution, it is still bound by the standards of the First Amendment because of the state’s unique Leonard Law, a statute ensuring that students at private schools have the same free speech rights as those at public schools. Because of this fact, Stanford needs to understand that restricting access to an event merely because a viewpoint expressed is “controversial” is usually considered a blatant violation of the First Amendment, and thereby the Leonard Law. The Supreme Court touched upon this issue in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123 (1992), when it found a permitting scheme unconstitutional because it required an administrator to take into account the unpopular content of an event when determining the permit fee. The Court reasoned that this would bring about a heckler’s veto because event costs would be based partially on the listener’s reactions. Events that were more controversial in nature could be taxed into silence solely because of their content.
This is now showing to be true at Stanford. The administration has decided to limit access to an event solely because it is being perceived as “controversial,” and by doing so, it is submitting to the heckler’s veto. Stanford has both a legal and a moral obligation to support the College Republicans’ free speech rights, and it should immediately reverse its illiberal decision.