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Stanford professors stand up for free speech culture with petition to end bias reporting system

Pillars casting shadows at Stanford University

Michael Warwick /

A group of Stanford faculty are publicly objecting to a campus “harm reporting” system they say chills campus speech. Their concerns, voiced last week to The Wall Street Journal, echo FIRE’s concerns about how these systems can threaten the robust free speech culture colleges like Stanford promise.

“It reminds me of McCarthyism,” Stanford professor Russell Berman said in the piece, detailing concerns about the school’s Protected Identity Harm reporting system, which was implemented in 2021 as a way to facilitate reporting classmates for violating COVID-19 protocols. Troublingly, it’s now being used by students to report all kinds of behavior — including protected speech — that they subjectively feel shows “bias” or causes “harm.” 

As another professor cited in the article put it: “You’re basically going to be reporting people who you find offensive, right?”

Right. Just look at what happened last month when the system made national news after a student got reported for reading Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” 

When administrators effectively encourage and create ways for students to narc on each other for protected speech, they stifle the culture of free expression that should be paramount at any institution of higher education. 

Stanford says the system was designed to “build and maintain a better, safer, and more respectful campus community.” But faculty say that the process of administrators reaching out to students accused of harm creates a culture of fear around speech — even though administrators say participation in the restorative justice-type processes, which Stanford suggests will assuage any “harm” caused, is “voluntary.”

“They may not call that punitive,” professor Juan Santiago told the Journal, “but that can be very stressful.” These concerns inspired Santiago to gather signatures for a petition to end the reporting system. He’s had 77 fellow faculty sign on as of WSJ’s report.

Professor Santiago’s lamentations echo FIRE’s longtime concerns about the chilling effect bias response systems have on students and faculty. As FIRE wrote in its first ever nationwide survey of bias response teams back in 2017: 

Bias Response Teams, when armed with open-ended definitions of “bias,” staffed by law enforcement and student conduct administrators, and left without training on freedom of expression, represent an emerging risk to free and open discourse on campus and in the classroom. Even if a Bias Response Team does not have the power to take punitive action, the prospect of an official investigation may make students and faculty more cautious about what opinions they dare to express.

To be clear, anonymous speech and reporting are vital components of free expression. But administrators can offer support to reporting students who say they’ve been harmed by protected speech without involving the accused.

It is up to administrators at schools with similar bias reporting systems to clarify that offensive speech reported through these systems may still be protected under the school’s free speech promises. For example, although Stanford is a private university, it’s excellent free speech policies and California’s Leonard Law establish that the university must respect students’ expressive rights. 

It may seem reasonable to hope that students at one of the more prestigious institutions in the country might have a firm grasp on the First Amendment and be able to differentiate between protected and unprotected speech on their own. Unfortunately, recent survey data makes clear that this is not the case. That’s why Stanford’s system and others like it, while purporting to promote a “climate of respect,” are functionally systematizing thought policing. 

When administrators effectively encourage and create ways for students to narc on each other for protected speech, they stifle the culture of free expression that should be paramount at any institution of higher education. 

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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