Op-ed: Niall Ferguson’s attack on free speech

June 11, 2018, 9:15 a.m.

Stanford does not have a great record when it comes to a student’s freedom of speech. As an organization with its origins in the Free Speech movement of the 1960s, the International Socialist Organization at Stanford has been repeatedly appalled by the consistent manner in which the University administration has failed to protect the free political speech of students. One of the most prominent examples is the ironically named “free speech zone” rule that limits demonstrations to White Plaza. Rules such as these have repeatedly been used by Stanford to restrict speech on campus by limiting students’ ability to demonstrate in front of controversial events.  Additionally, only two years ago armed police officers were sent to intimidate Students for Alternatives to Militarism protestors. In all of our experiences at the university, Stanford has exercised a degree of control over the political speech of students that we believe demonstrates a lack of commitment to consistently upholding the principle of free speech.

Niall Ferguson’s recently revealed actions have been a particularly dangerous addition to this long line of violations of freedom of speech. The Hoover institution has long influenced campus politics by inviting racist speakers such as Charles Murray and science deniers like Scott Pruitt, but this at least falls within the purview of their free speech, as does student protest against these speakers. The recent actions of Niall Ferguson, do not.

In the lead up to the Charles Murray event, Cardinal Conversation faculty leadership (McFaul and Ferguson) met with student activists to defuse a potential repeat of the student body’s show of force at the Robert Spencer event earlier this year. The representatives of the concerned students demanded something closer to the vision of a cross-political-spectrum student committee advertised in Cardinal Conversation’s promotional material. Despite his facade of meeting with students and giving assurances that the political character of the committee would reflect the actual political composition of the student body, behind closed doors Ferguson was doing everything in his power to make sure that this change would not happen. Ferguson’s emails show that he was hostile to the very idea that the student committee for Cardinal Conversations would be anything other than a rubber stamp on his right-wing program. In his efforts to derail the activist coalition, Ferguson singled out an individual undergraduate student, thus crossing the line from participating in campus politics to coordinating personal harassment. The culmination of the retaliation campaign involved an article in the Stanford Review and similar posts on the Stanford College Republicans’ Facebook page that painted a false narrative about the student. Despite abusing his position of authority to encourage bullying the student for their political views, Ferguson was not asked to resign from the position. He was instead merely dropped off of the faculty leadership of his Cardinal Conversations speaker series.   

One would think that someone like Ferguson, who claims to be a free speech advocate, might understand the negative impact his behavior has had on the political climate at Stanford. Instead, in a recent editorial in the London Sunday Times he made clear that he does not see his targeted harassment of students as wrong. He calls the entire incident a “pyrrhic victory for free speech” and writes that “the mess might have been avoided if conservatives at universities did not feel so beleaguered.” When interviewed by the Daily he said that he regretted “the publication of these emails,” seemingly more concerned with the fact that he got caught than that he had been interfering with student political speech by attempting to silence those he disagreed with.

Considering this, we cannot trust Ferguson to “put on his tweed jacket and retreat to his study” as he claims he will in the Sunday Times article. If he feels he did nothing wrong, and there are no serious consequences for his actions, what is to stop him from bullying other students again in the future?  The only way that President Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Drell can do right by the students in this scenario is by taking some form of disciplinary action against Ferguson to make clear that this sort of deliberate attack will not be allowed again.

We are not calling for such disciplinary action solely because of his political views, after all, there are plenty of other conservative lecturers in Stanford’s faculty. It is the specific actions of Ferguson and their consequences that are disturbing. Ferguson has violated the most basic principles of free expression on campus in a move that might just have a “chilling effect’ on further speech unless Stanford takes steps to demonstrate that such childish and abusive actions will not be tolerated. In our combined time at Stanford we had never before seen a student government election contested through the coordinated targeting of a candidate with slander and abuse. We cannot ignore this and let it happen again.

—Grant Hallee ’19, Bora Erden BA ’17 MA ’18 on behalf of The International Socialist Organization at Stanford


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