Free speech class is ACLU-inspired

April 14, 2010, 1:04 a.m.

Student Initiated Courses negotiate touch issues; faculty consider rigor over balance

Students Amir Badat ’10 and Jeff Tai ’11 are working to increase student awareness of free speech policies on campus through PoliSci 92X, a one-unit student initiated course (SIC) on free speech in the college context.

Both members of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Stanford chapter, Badat and Tai were inspired in part by First Amendment cases on campus, such as the Stanford Democrats’ difficulties in executing events during the 2004 and 2008 elections due to tax issues. The events sparked Badat and Tai’s interest in exploring free speech issues further.

While the SIC program does not have any special regulations regarding political classes, according to coordinator Justin Brooke ’10, a highly polarized course may raise concerns for the review panel of faculty members.

“If it’s clear that a class seems one-sided, then the panel might take [that] into account and think that the class was underdeveloped,” Brooke said.

But Peter Pompei, a professor in the School of Medicine who has judged SIC applications, said this does not necessarily occupy top priority for the faculty members in charge of approving courses. Academic value is the most important criterion, he said.

“Not every class has to be balanced,” Pompei said. “If someone’s particularly interested in jazz music, for instance, and they want to present a class on that, we don’t expect them to hand us a curriculum that includes classical and rock. We want to make sure that whatever is being delivered in the SIC has value and academic integrity.”

“They can present one side without necessarily being balanced, but it has to be accurate and founded in knowledge,” he added.

Advocating specific political values was never part of the agenda for Tai and Badat. They adamantly emphasized that PoliSci 92X is a non-partisan class because the topic of free speech requires an understanding of many sides.

“It’s a complicated [and] messy issue,” Tai said. “A lot of things are not as intuitive as they seem. For every real cool awesome mobilization that happens, like the response to Westboro Baptist Church, what allowed [that] to happen, that is also what allows the Westboro Baptist Church. The same regulations that protect their rights to stage a counter-protest have to be extended likewise. There can’t be a double standard.”

Tai was referring to a demonstration by members of Westboro Baptist Church in January on the corner of Mayfield Avenue and Campus Drive, which sparked a large simultaneous gathering of students.

“We’re hardly experts on that,” Tai said. “It’s not that we’re advocating a political position or anything like that. We just want to facilitate discussion.”

The discrepancy in the interpretation of what falls under constitutional protection at Stanford is often inadvertent and can be attributed to sheer lack of knowledge, according to Rubi Ancajas’12, a Stanford Review writer whose September 2009 profile of Stanford cases will be frequently referred to in PoliSci 92X. Although the topic has come up three or four times this year, its frequency is difficult to define and may be more subjective than it seems, she said.

“We might think something is an issue of free speech, whereas they might think something is clearly written in our policy,” she said. “A lot of times, students do not realize when they’re violating the rules.”

For Badat, the ultimate goal of the course is to further educate Stanford students, especially those in political groups, whose demonstrations and events may not be approved in a timely manner because they are not in line with University policy. The philanthropic objective was part of the appeal of the course, Pompei said.

“[We want to] inform them about their rights on campus, so if they feel like their rights are being infringed upon by administration or by anyone else, then they know not only that they have a right to act, but how they can go about protecting their rights,” Badat said.

PoliSci 92X, which meets in Wallenberg Hall on Tuesdays, will culminate in a field trip to the ACLU office to give students an inside look at how First Amendment violations are dealt with.

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