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Editorial Board: On free speech and engagement

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Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in our NSO magazine issue on Sept. 22.

As we return from the summer, some of the most talked-about news events have brought back into national focus a number of issues that have long dominated discussion on college campuses.

Violence broke out after white supremacists marched onto the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, and a counterprotestor was killed in a car attack during a rally nearby the next day. A Google engineer was fired after publishing a memo criticizing the company’s diversity policies and suggesting that biological reasons were to blame for the gender gap in tech. UC Berkeley student groups’ on-again, off-again plans to host Milo Yiannopoulos have brought the issue of controversial speakers and violence on college campuses back to the forefront.

While each of these events sits in its own context and its own web of complex questions, they all raise the question of how institutions express their values. Free speech and expression of opinions is of fundamental importance to democracy, and as such, individual free expression is generally under strong legal protection from the American government. But the speech of institutions is much more complicated: How and when should they take stances on their values, and what obligation do they have to provide a platform for the expression of their constituents — or employees, or users, or students?

As a newspaper, we have — and always will have — a duty to defend free speech, but we also recognize that we bear a certain responsibility in promoting speech that is constructive and useful. To that end, here are some of our thoughts on how institutions — including Stanford — might best express their values.

Scope of influence matters. The more power and influence an institution has, the more it needs to carefully consider the stances it takes and the ways in which it expresses those stances. The stakes are high, whether for a web hosting company deciding whether to allow hate groups to easily and cheaply establish themselves on the internet or for a university deciding whether to give or refuse to intentionally controversial speakers the same stages given to Nobel recipients. Public stances set norms. When President Trump, for example, declined to condemn white supremacist groups when addressing the events in Charlottesville, he sent a message heard not only across America but around the world.

Here on campus, given the leading role Stanford has established for itself in higher education, both administrators and students should recognize that every public stance taken — on issues ranging from racism to sexual assault to fossil fuels — can be enormously consequential and should be carefully thought out.

Institutional history matters. No one can be expected to take a clear stance in every single debate. But public statements and actions are always in historical context, and for an institution to speak or act without consideration of its own history is just careless.

We should expect UC Berkeley to have taken into account its role as the birthplace of the free speech movement of the 1960s when deciding to alternately host and cancel Yiannopoulos on its campus, just as we should expect Google to have considered the tech industry’s history of gender inequity when firing James Damore. Earlier this year, Georgetown decided to explicitly address the role of slavery in its survival by offering preferential admission to the descendants of slaves sold to fund the school, as well as creating a memorial and an institute for the study of slavery. History doesn’t always have to be a burden on an institution’s actions for its future, but it should always be taken into context.

Sustained action matters. Values should be meaningful; stances taken on those values should produce meaningful action. Bold public statements by major institutions are often essential to get people talking sufficiently about a problem, and discourse is necessary to create solutions that really work. But bold public statements without any follow-through are effectively useless and often end up trivializing the issue at hand. Companies, universities and others need to commit to their values rather than just providing a good PR moment.

Institutions should also carefully consider the actions produced when they give public platforms to their constituents, or those invited by their constituents. Violence is never an acceptable consequence of free expression; this is true whether that expression comes in the form of a speaking event or a protest or a rally. While The Daily does not endorse the viewpoint of every speaker invited to address Stanford students, we unequivocally condemn those who wish to rebut such viewpoints with violence rather than arguments, with fear rather than discourse or action.

What does all of this mean more concretely?

In one example: Following last year’s presidential election, the former Daily Editorial Board expressed regret about not speaking out about Donald Trump earlier but wrote that “in this moment, it is important not to disengage from politics or to retreat from this nation that we share.” And almost a year later, this current board believes that “this moment” isn’t over.

As a newspaper, our actions are our words, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go beyond empty statements. We commit to staying engaged, to following up on the issues even when they are no longer as sensational as when the first headline broke, to keeping ourselves and the institutions around us accountable. We commit to continuing our internal discussions on our values and how we can make our paper better while widening our impact.

We ask that the University consider the above thoughts when deciding what public stances to take. Stanford’s voice is prominent in itself, but its actions also set an example, and so we ask that the University go further and model policies that protect its community and that preserve the integrity of research and intellectual pursuits.

Likewise, we ask that students, when challenging the administration — as we often should — take the same level of consideration. University stances and decisions should be questioned, but we should do so deliberately and thoughtfully, with the aim of open and reasoned dialogue. This is an idea that has popped up frequently in the last year, in both national and local conversations, and for good reason: It’s the best way to move beyond words into concrete actions.

This is the kind of expression that makes a difference.

— Vol. 252 Editorial Board

 

Contact the Board at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Editorial Board consists of President and Editor-in-Chief Ada Statler-Throckmorton '18, Executive Editor Samantha Wong '18, Managing Editor of Opinions Stephanie Chen '18, and Editor-at-Large Tristan Vanech '18. To contact the Editorial Board, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at [email protected]