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Stanford rightly reverses course after telling faculty they can’t share opinions about grad-student union drive

Faculty must be able to express their opinions in their personal capacities without institutional interference.
Photo of Stanford University homepage on a monitor screen through a magnifying glass

Gil C /

Stanford University almost had another big free speech controversy on its hands after administrators issued — then swiftly retracted — a ban on faculty sharing opinions about graduate student unions.  The move comes after university officials repeatedly vowed to protect campus expression in recent weeks after the shoutdown of a federal judge at Stanford Law School in March, and numerous other controversies in recent months. 

Last week, Stanford graduate student workers announced they had initiated a union organizing campaign. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that guidelines for students and faculty about the unionization effort previously included a directive that faculty members “should not post your opinions about union organizing on your office door, in your faculty office or on social media. You should not send letters or emails to communicate your views to graduate students regarding the pros and cons of union representation.”

Universities like Stanford that promise faculty free expression rights may not exercise control over faculty members’ comments on their personal social media accounts.

Universities like Stanford that promise faculty free expression rights may not exercise control over faculty members’ comments on their personal social media accounts. Nor can any university — public or private — claim jurisdiction over faculty members’ rights as citizens to comment on matters of public concern, even where the topic relates broadly to the university. After faculty pushback, Stanford removed the statement that faculty should not express those views on social media. 

As graduate students strike and unionize across the country, faculty and students are going to have opinions on this hotly debated topic. Schools must not stand in their way, but that hasn’t prevented at least one other recent attempt to do so. Late last year, at the University of California, Irvine, just a six-hour drive from Stanford, administrators prevented the graduate and undergraduate student governments from using an email platform to send out messages in support of striking graduate students, saying university policies prohibit “political” speech on the system. Thankfully, UC Irvine backed off after FIRE expressed concerns about its censorship of student speech. 

Although FIRE takes no stance on unionization or striking, we will always support student and faculty rights to express their own opinions on labor activities.

FIRE commends Stanford for reversing course quickly. The university’s action is especially important given the multitude of free speech controversies at the university this year. Stanford is perhaps the school we’ve seen cross our desks the most in 2023 — for punishing expressive activity. 

Stanford must continue to stand up for student and faculty expressive rights to prevent a chilling effect over the university community. We’re encouraged Stanford recognized this misstep on its own. As always, we’ll keep watching to ensure Stanford follows through on its firm commitment to free expression.

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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