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Stanford says it’s not punishing the student photographed reading ‘Mein Kampf.’ Here’s why that’s not good enough. 

University responds to FIRE’s letter by insisting that no student is being “punished or investigated for reading a book,” instead citing “a concern from a student organization regarding how an image shared on social media was being received by other students.”
Photo of Stanford University homepage on a monitor screen through a magnifying glass

Gil C /

In case you missed our earlier blog entry on it, let’s take a quick look at what has been occurring at Stanford University over the past couple of weeks. In January, two Stanford students were photographed with Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, “Mein Kampf,” and reported to the university via its Protected Identity Harm reporting system. 

The situation received significant media attention, with an Inside Higher Ed story describing what was in the photo: 

A screenshot of the image that Inside Higher Ed obtained independently shows a young woman seated and holding a paperback copy of Mein Kampf a bit below her eye level, its cover in the image’s foreground. Another young woman is seated next to her, and they appear to possibly be in a dorm room. The woman holding the book has her forefinger on her closed lips with the fingernail facing outward; her brow is furrowed and eyes are narrowed. The image seems to convey an exaggeratedly thoughtful expression.

Stanford responded to our Jan. 25 letter on Feb. 1, insisting that “no one is being punished or investigated by the university for reading a book.” The school added: 

The university received a concern from a student organization regarding how an image shared on social media was being received by other students. At the request of the student organization, we have been engaged in conversation with a number of students, seeking to provide support and foster communication. The university has not mandated any meetings or discussions.

Whether the student was reading the book for a course, independent study, or using it as a prop in a joke, our concerns remain. The presence of the book is what prompted the filing of the PIH report. IHE’s description of the photo suggests that the book was being used as part of a joke. (That said, it’s difficult to ascertain whether someone is “actually” reading a book in a photo or simply posing.). But even if the book was simply part of a joke, the photograph is still protected expression. 

Not only does Stanford promise students expressive rights — explicitly noting that offensive speech is protected — it is bound by California’s Leonard Law, which bars secular, private colleges from making or enforcing any rule that would subject a student to discipline for speech that would otherwise be protected off-campus. The university apparently limited communication about the situation to an email sent only to the Jewish student population, and the university has yet to post about the incident, or the PIH report, on its incident dashboard. Stanford’s lack of transparency combined with the media attention surrounding this situation may lead students to focus only on the limited confirmed details: A student read a book, and Stanford is taking action. 

The university’s response fails to address our original concerns:  that even notifying a student that their protected expression has allegedly caused harm — when such a message comes from an administrator with disciplinary powers — can have a chilling effect. “The power differential between university administrators and students is significant,” we explained. 

Stanford can repeatedly insist the resolution process is voluntary, but students may nevertheless not see it that way if the university isn’t sufficiently transparent. While the university affirmed its support for academic freedom and freedom of expression in its response, those commitments mean little when not put into practice. 

We continue to call on Stanford to avoid launching a formal process that students could construe as some sort of investigation into protected speech, or that effectively requires them to admit their protected expression was problematic. Instead, Stanford can support students who are sensitive to speech without involving the speaker. 

FIRE will continue to advocate that the best response for bad speech is always more — non-pressured — speech.

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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