A response to ‘Advancing Free Speech and Inclusion’

Nov. 8, 2017, 1:00 a.m.

An open letter to President Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Drell:

Yesterday morning, your office published a new Quad Notes post titled “Advancing Free Speech and Inclusion” – in the midst of campus controversy regarding next week’s booking of Robert Spencer, author of “Confessions of an Islamophobe.” This comes, too, in the wake of swastikas and white supremacist Identity Evropa posters appearing anonymously on buildings across campus. In your blog, you acknowledge that our national political moment is one of divisiveness and tension, and that we must “model” “respectful expression,” that “disagreement should not threaten an academic community, it should enhance it.”

Implicit in all of this is the understanding that if our community is threatened, there are limits to the expression we can condone; a line that we should not accept being crossed.

Yesterday evening, that line was crossed. Seven hours after your blog post, the image of a Stanford student – leaked without consent from the student’s Snapchat story and with the username visible — became the centerpiece of an article authored by Robert Spencer on his website JihadWatch.org, an aggregator site on the “violence” purveyed by “the general rubric of jihad” that Spencer claims is “a central duty of every Muslim.” The article contains a video of the student taking down Spencer advertisements and calls the student a “left-fascist,” asking why “Stanford’s fascist community [is] so angry that [Spencer is] set to speak? Are they for the jihad mass murder of innocent civilians? The beating of women? The execution of gays?”

As of this writing, the post remains online, with thousands of potential views of a member of our own community plastered on an alt-right website.

This is dangerous. This is real. And we write this open letter because your blog post misses the point of why students are challenging Spencer’s booking, why this debate is not about free speech or national security – it is about the safety of thousands for whom your administration is responsible.

Your blog post posits acceptable protest as “without disrupting” the speech, missing the point that protest is disruption. Your post cites the Leonard Law that “prevents private universities from placing restrictions on students for speech that is protected by the First Amendment,” eliding the fact that this speaker’s views are antithetical with the very identity of many of our peers, eliding the fact that this speaker isn’t even a student.

You say you “welcome thoughts from the community on other steps the university can take.” But people all over this community have shared their thoughts, have signed petitions, have voiced their concerns – not just against the legitimization of this particular speaker, but against a systemic reluctance. A reluctance to understand the difference between a dialogue, like the universal health care debate you cite, and the providing of a platform for an ideologue whose rhetoric actively makes members of this community feel unsafe. You say you “view this post as the beginning of a conversation,” but the post reads with the finality of a decision that we, the student body, have been stripped of the agency to shape. It’s not a conversation if you throw the Fundamental Standard at us while implicitly condoning a speaker who violates the first clause, “to respect and uphold the rights and dignity of others.” It’s not a conversation if you don’t hear us.

So hear us. Hear us when we say that your post feels like a silencing, not a call to inclusion. Hear us when we say that your post conflates the “controversial” and the “provocative” with the grotesque. Hear us when we question a speaker who is not entitled to the cachet of the Stanford name, and who through qualifications outside of stoking controversy certainly has not earned it. Does the attitude, the rhetoric, the public expressions of this speaker reflect the “sense of mutual respect” you are hoping to encourage within the Stanford community?

And then look at the website. See the face of one of your charges, one of our own, indicted by the court of Robert Spencer on a well-trafficked alt-right page, and know that a blog post that equalizes that with “inclusivity” is a blog post that doesn’t express the principles we know we share, that were written into the Fundamental Standard for over a century: Respect for “morality,” for “the rights of others as is demanded by good citizens. Failure to do so will be sufficient cause for removal from the university” – and that includes those we bring within our home.


Joshua De Leon, coterm M.A.
Umniya Najaer, first-year Ph.D.
Jason Beckman, second-year Ph.D.
Jamie M. Fine, first-year Ph.D.


Editor’s note: Due to violations of The Daily’s contact policy, the authors’ emails have been removed from this post. To get in touch with the authors, email opinions at stanforddaily.com. Non-threatening messages will be passed on to the authors.

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