A closer look at the Fundamental Standard’s limits

Nov. 27, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

The Fundamental Standard tells us that “Students at Stanford are expected to show both within and without the University such respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens,” and crucially that “failure to do this will be sufficient cause for removal from the University.”

This short little clause has near-ubiquitous influence over how the University manages disciplinary action. Offenses from plagiarism to underage drinking to hazing are all sorted under the umbrella of the Fundamental Standard. And while the Fundamental Standard may be one of the best known features of University policy, it is also the least understood. After all, the legal standing of this foundational community norm has drastically changed since its articulation in 1896.

Just a few weeks ago, following The Daily’s story on the ASSU’s new Director of Academic Freedom, students debated what it might mean for a student to be charged with ensuring campus speakers uphold the Fundamental Standard.

The Office of Community Standards’ page states that the Fundamental Standard demands that students respect the “rights and dignity” of others’ “race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic status.” A fair reading of this might suggest that members of Stanford’s community who have failed to do so could be “[removed] from the University.” However that reading would be giving the Standard much more credit than it is due.

This core piece of university policy lost much of its bite in 1995 when a Stanford Law student, Robert J. Corry, sued the University for a speech code that prohibited “fighting words.” Stanford, a private university, maintained that it could prohibit whatever speech or conduct it saw fit. Corry argued that according to the Leonard Law, a statute passed by the state of California in 1992, even private universities in California could not further regulate speech that would ordinarily be protected under the First Amendment. Corry’s audacity paid off when the Santa Clara County Court ruled Stanford’s speech code violated California state law.

This case set a broad precedent in the name of free speech. It meant that the University had much less latitude in regulating students’ expression or conduct, even if this conduct conflicted with outlined community standards.

Though Corry v. Stanford’s decision still stands, community members are often unclear on the limitations it imposes on administrators. There is no doubt that the University finds itself in such a precarious situation today, when political polarization on campus has reached such a peak that various sides of the political divide compete to broadcast the most ostentatious message. For students interested in reinstating civility, many look to the university to ask when an intervention might occur. Others fear if a group or speaker crosses a line, we might all suffer due to increased regulation of student activities or invited speakers.

A recent Stanford Daily Op-Ed criticized the President and Provost for being “tepid in their condemnations and responses to expressions of hatred and bigotry on campus,” while an article in the Stanford Review alarmed readers with the prospect that the broadly-worded Fundamental Standard might be arbitrated by a grad student. Neither side mentioned the University’s legal constraints to do either.

These limitations are ones that we, as an Editorial Board, have grown more precisely aware of, after originally calling on University leadership to impose sanctions on a student group back in August.

It’s time that Stanford’s Fundamental Standard reflect the true scope of its mandate and that Stanford amend the clause to reflect the proper legal nuance concerning speech and expression on campus.

The revision of the Standard should make clear that the Fundamental Standard sets out nothing more than an aspirational model for conduct, and in matters concerning speech or expression, the University is legally barred from censuring students when they fail to abide. To this end, President Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Drell could convene a task force to amend the Standard and better articulate the role and the limits of this doctrine in our community.


Contact The Stanford Daily’s Editorial Board at opinions ‘at’ gmail.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 Managing Editor of Opinions Anna-Sofia Lesiv '20, Editor-in-Chief Courtney Douglas '20, Executive Editor Joshua Wagner '20, Elizabeth Lindqwister '21 and Terence Zhao '19. 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].

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