Students to Res-Ed: Let Our Voices Be Heard

November 11, 2005

After two years of Residential Education’s strict enforcement of the no door-to-door distribution policy, many students want the university to consider altering the prohibition.

Despite a vote from the student body in support of changing the policy last year and the passing of a corresponding ASSU Senate advocacy bill, Residential Education (ResEd) has failed to take action. The Stanford Daily even ran an editorial last month asking ResEd to adopt a new stance on door-to-door distribution.

Currently, ResEd does not allow the distribution of student publications from door-to-door without the explicit consent of the dorms’ Resident Fellows (RF). Instead, the current policy requires student publications to leave stacks of their work in the various residence lounges throughout campus. In general, most publications find lounge stacks to be significantly less effective in gaining readership than door-to-door distribution.

This “opt-in” policy gives RFs the opportunity to restrict the distribution of publications on their own personal beliefs. The door-to-door distribution ban restricts the distribution of all publications, regardless of content. However, The Stanford Review relies especially on door-to-door distribution to gain readership. Historically, “sensitive content”—a term many use to characterize Review stories—has often been cited by residential staffs as grounds for enforcing the prohibition.

ResEd has, however, encouraged RFs to put the question of door-to-door distribution up for a vote among residents. Castaño, an undergraduate dormitory, is now one of the few residences allowing door-to-door distribution after the issue was put to a vote among residents earlier this year.

However, many RFs and dorms have not given their residents a say in the distribution policy. Roble RF Christine Gabali explained that “sometimes voting is unnecessary” in a recent article in The Stanford Daily. She elaborated: “like, let’s vote if we should eat or not — it’s common sense.” Resultantly, Roble currently does not allow door-to-door distribution.

In an interview with The Review, ASSU Senate Chair Chris Nguyen expressed disdain for how Gabali and other RFs determined the distribution policy in their dorms. “For Roble RF Christine Gabali to state that Roble residents need not vote on the policy because it is ‘uneccessary’ seems to fly in the face of the principles of democratic self-governance,” said Nguyen. “For Toyon staff to reject a resident’s request during house meeting to hold a vote on the policy is nothing short of an insult, as they are essentially saying the residents are too stupid to decide for themselves and [that the] all-knowing staff must decide for them.”

Despite Gabali’s black-and-white view of the distribution policy issue, the majority of Stanford students want the university to change its policy. Advisory Referendum 1 on last year’s ASSU election ballot asked students if ResEd should adopt an opt-out policy—where dorms received door-to-door distribution by default unless residents specifically agreed to emplace restrictions. Students supported altering the policy by a six-percent margin.

Additionally, the ASSU Undergraduate Senate passed an advocacy bill during their May 29, 2005 meeting that “encourages Residential Education to change their default distribution policy to allow door-to-door distribution for student publications until there is a vote at house meeting.”

The legality of the current “opt-in” policy is a concern. Interpretations of the First Amendment quickly become complicated, but cases against similar policies have gone to court and won. In Martin v. Struthers (1943), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a city ordinance against door-to-door distribution was unconstitutional, in fact stating that “door to door distribution of circulars is essential to the poorly financed causes of little people.”

Nguyen, in the same interview, echoed the findings of Martin v. Struthers: “I am stunned that there are people who believe that freedom of speech and the press should be ignored in an effort to prevent spam. Outside of Stanford, homeowners and businesses who don’t want to be bothered put up “no solicitation” signs. It is an established Constitutional right for people to distribute door-to-door for houses and businesses in the real world, unless there is an explicit sign on a door against distribution.”

The issue of door-to-door distribution at universities is not unique to Stanford. Dartmouth College began enforcing its own ban on door-to-door distribution policy in 2002. The new policy greatly affected The Dartmouth Review, the infamous conservative paper at Dartmouth that—like publications at Stanford—relies on door-to-door distribution to gain readership. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) ultimately contacted Dartmouth administrators, warning them that the door-to-door distribution ban endangered First Amendment rights.

A similar incident occurred at Northwestern University in 1996. The student senate banned the Northwestern Chronicle, the university’s conservative weekly, from distributing door-to-door. However, the university’s appeals board quickly struck down the policy for violating constitutional principles.

Ben Guthrie, Editor Emeritus of The Stanford Review, already submitted Stanford’s door-to-door distribution policy to FIRE—in hopes of gaining assistance in overturning the current ban. Currently, FIRE rates Stanford’s speech policies as a “red light.” FIRE uses the “red light” ranking to designate schools which retain “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

RFs and the population of students that support the current distribution policy provide a variety of reasons. Many involve safety. According to this group, papers left unattended in dorm hallways become a fire hazard and something to potentially trip-on. Occasionally, the potential build-up of litter is also cited as a reason for keeping publications away from student doorsteps.

Opponents of the current policy, however, believe that intellectual diversity justifies the potential endangerment caused by door-to-door distribution. “ResEd’s home page says it wants to prepare students ‘for a life of leadership, intellectual engagement, citizenship and service,’” said Nguyen. “These qualities can only be instilled in people who have been exposed to a diversity of opinion.”

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