After public backlash, the University on Tuesday lifted a hold that it had placed on a third-year law student’s graduation diploma over a satirical email he had sent to his peers mocking the Stanford branch of the Federalist Society. Despite its action, Stanford continues to face intensifying questions over the bounds of free speech on campus and its enforcement of policies.
University spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote in a statement that the complaint was resolved expeditiously and that both the law student and the individual who reported the email were notified that the student’s email is considered “protected speech.” With an uptick in both the number and complexity of free speech cases on campus, Stanford is taking a closer look at its disciplinary processes, according to Miranda.
“We will continue to review policies and practices relating to these to ensure ongoing compliance,” Miranda wrote. “We are also reviewing procedures for placing holds on student accounts in judicial cases in close proximity to graduation to ensure that holds are limited to cases for which the outcome could be serious enough to affect the timing of degree conferral.”
Community members’ criticisms of the investigation come nearly two weeks after a social media campaign orchestrated by the Stanford College Republicans (SCR) precipitated the firing of Associated Press news associate Emily Wilder ’20. The incident ignited a new round of discussions over the University’s responsibility to discipline student organizations that threaten the safety of community members.
The latest controversy stems from a satirical flyer Nicholas Wallace J.D. ’21 sent to a law school mailing list on Jan. 25, advertising a fictitious event that lampooned the Stanford Federalist Society. The event, “The Originalist Case for Inciting Insurrection,” would feature Sen. Josh Hawley ’02 (R-Mo.) and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
“Violent insurrection, also known as doing a coup, is a classical system of installing a government,” Wallace’s flyer read, adding that “violent insurrection can be an effective approach to upholding the principle of limited government.”
Although the flyer adopted a similar letterhead used to promote Federalist Society events, many viewed the email as clearly satirical, particularly because it was sent in a mailing list that is not used to advertise events, according to several law students including Graduate Student Council (GSC) co-chair and former SLS student body president K.C. Shah J.D. ’22.
But others disagreed. Two months after Wallace sent his email, an officer of the Stanford Federalist Society lodged a complaint with the Office of Community Standards. The complaint alleged that Wallace “defamed” and “impersonated” the student group. A representative of the Federalist Society did not respond to a request for comment.
Wallace was notified on May 27 that the University had placed a hold on his degree pending the outcome of an investigation to determine whether he broke school policies, potentially jeopardizing his graduation and resulting in disciplinary action.
Support for Wallace came in droves: The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent the University a letter on Tuesday urging it to drop its investigation on Wallace and reform its procedures to protect student rights. Later that day, a petition calling for the University to immediately drop the investigation and stand in solidarity with Wallace garnered more than 400 signatures and many critical messages from students, alumni and faculty members from both within and outside the law school. A number of students and faculty members threatened to boycott the law school graduation, place holds on their Stanford law degrees or resign from their faculty posts if the hold on Wallace’s diploma was not lifted.
Law professor Michael McConnell, director of Stanford’s Constitutional Law Center and former U.S. Court of Appeals judge, said he was glad Wallace was exonerated. McConnell, who teaches courses on constitutional law and the First Amendment, is also a member of Facebook’s independent oversight board.
“Stanford cannot punish students for constitutionally protected speech, as this was,” McConnell said. “I hope this incident will inspire universities to take a hard look at both the procedures and the substance of their policies about student speech, to ensure that the threat of retribution does not chill free expression — whether left or right.”
The University’s investigation of Wallace came during a period of heightened scrutiny of the bounds of protected speech within the Stanford community. In recent weeks, hundreds of Stanford faculty members and students have urged the University to initiate a Fundamental Standard investigation into SCR’s attacks on Wilder, which some have labeled as harassment.
While President Marc Tessier-Lavigne called for respectful engagement and discouraged the use of social media to “shame those with particular views,” he failed to assuage the concerns some community members have about their ability to freely express viewpoints.
“As president, I cannot mandate that people engage with each other in respectful ways, and the university cannot sanction people for what they say, absent a finding in a university process,” the president said at a Campus Conversation event on May 26. “But I can champion respectful engagement.”
The bar for determining when speech has violated University rules is high. The Leonard Law confers free speech rights encapsulated in the U.S. and California constitutions to private colleges, universities and high schools in the state. As a result, the University can only take disciplinary action against community members’ speech that meets the legal threshold for unprotected speech.
But some community members say that the action taken against Wallace is an example of unbalanced enforcement of University policies that indicates bias.
Civil and environmental engineering professor Stephen Monismith said that the withholding of Wallace’s graduation diploma was “beyond the pale.”
“How is it that the Stanford College Republicans can get away with trying to destroy someone’s career, but when someone else criticizes people on the right by a satire piece, they are subject to possible suspension?” Monismith questioned, comparing SCR’s campaign against Wilder to Wallace’s situation. “I just don’t understand it.”
SCR is no stranger to controversy. Some community members have previously alleged that the organization’s use of social media to target individuals has resulted in the harassment and doxxing of students and faculty members, which has led to death threats in some cases. Despite these concerns, SCR has yet to face direct public condemnation from University officials.
According to comparative literature professor David Palumbo-Liu, complaints by SCR or the Federalist Society, when legitimized by University administrators, have a chilling effect on speech on campus.
“‘Cancel culture’ thrives when supported by naive and complicit administrators, student groups, rightwing organizations and media,” Palumbo-Liu wrote in a statement. “And this is what we see in both the cases of Wilder and Wallace. The clear message: immunity and protection for those with connections to power, the rest can fend for themselves.”
The lack of clarity in the Fundamental Standard policies may be responsible for inequitable disciplinary action taken by administrators, some students say. Unchanged since 1896, the two-sentence policy has proven ineffective at preventing harassment within the University community in recent years, according to former Associate Students of Stanford University vice president Cricket Bidleman ’21 M.A. ’22.
“No group or individual should be allowed to dox another individual,” Bidleman said. “I think that if Stanford can be transparent about a very clear policy in light of the affordances that an online society provides, then I think we’ll be in a better place.”
The polarity between how students and campus groups are affected by University policy boils down to more than whether the Fundamental Standard is enforced uniformly on a case-by-case basis. Though the University can open an investigation as a result of any filed complaint, in practice, any investigation will disproportionately impact a targeted individual compared to a group.
Campus groups have the ability to speak out under the veil of their organization, but the complaint behind the satirical email meant that Wallace was forced to deal with the uncertainty of his degree status while he was completing his final assignments at Stanford and preparing for the bar exam.
“To threaten someone’s degree at the very end of their term is unacceptable and it’s clearly going to intimidate not just him but other people whose literal degree is at stake,” said Sanna Ali, a fourth-year communication Ph.D. student and GSC co-chair. “They could lose everything. He’s been in law school for the past three years, and it could all just be gone like that because he made a joke.”
Now that the controversy has settled and Wallace will be able to graduate with his peers, he urged the University, in an email to law school affiliates, to look inward and reevaluate its protocols so that “no other student is subjected to an abuse of process in this way again, and to develop better protections for its students’ freedom of expression.”
“It is vital that we keep the dialogue going,” Wallace wrote.
This article has been updated with statements from law professor Michael McConnell.