More than a quarter of a century ago, on February 7, 1992, then-President of Stanford University Donald Kennedy wrote an op-ed in the Stanford Daily addressing a set of disturbing incidents on campus:
“During recent weeks, students and organizations that claim to be ‘conservative’ have issued a series of challenges to the Stanford community … Our respect for freedom of speech may stop us short of formal sanctions in this disturbing case. But it need not prevent us from naming the behavior for what it is: vile, vicious and unworthy of Stanford. Nor need it prevent us from discerning and deploring its purpose, which is to damage our community by sowing mistrust.”
One “challenge” referred to the actions of Keith Rabois, then a student at Stanford Law School, who wanted to challenge Stanford’s commitment to free speech. His method was to inflict emotional harm, shouting “Die, die you faggot, I hope you all get AIDS and die!” outside the faculty member’s apartment.
Many things have changed since 1992; some have not. We are now “integrated” into the Internet, social media and an environment that can make malice viral nearly instantly. One does not just stand outside a residence and scream insults — one films it and uploads it to YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter. And then feeds that to large scale media outlets to blast it out even further. Or, better yet, individuals hide behind the anonymity of a student organization, which issues hateful messages through its Facebook account and feeds it to right-wing channels.
In the face of this, our administrators seem paralyzed. Is it from lack of skill or lack of will?
We have heard that conservative faculty and students feel out-numbered and attacked for their views, and that they also need protection. Certainly, gratuitous attacks on people solely on the basis of a political point of view is unacceptable. But the “both sides” argument is based on the belief that the relatively small number of conservatives on campus are powerless against a majority that holds power, and that this majority wields its power in the same way and in the same spirit as do some “conservative” groups. However, neither of these beliefs is based on any empirical fact.
Something is happening at Stanford that continues the toxic legacy of 1992 — in fact, that legacy has thrived. When a group of faculty brought it to the attention of the Stanford Faculty Senate that, among other things, at least two Hoover fellows wrote for the alt-right publication The Daily Caller, and used the Hoover landing page to advertise those articles, and pointed out that the fact the Hoover displays the banner of Stanford University at the top of its page means Stanford is giving its imprimatur to an alt-right media platform, no one cared.
When we suggested a faculty committee be formed to look into the relationship between Stanford and the Hoover Institution, former Provost John Etchemendy, current Provost Persis Drell, and former Provost and current Director of the Hoover Institution Condoleezza Rice all argued against the notion that faculty could do that. Etchemendy instead proposed that the investigation could be undertaken by — Persis Drell and Condoleezza Rice. That’s sheer power embodied.
When Stanford Colleges Republicans (SCR) doxxed Stanford alum Emily Wilder, and fed years-old tweets to the rightwing media, the smear was in turn fed to Senator Tom Cotton, who picked up the message and broadcasted it on his platform. Shortly after, Ms. Wilder’s employer, the Associated Press, fired her. The Stanford administration has been silent — it has refused to condemn the attack. That is a decisive act not to the power of one’s office.
Now in this last, sad, episode, the Stanford Federalist Society initiated what can only be called a frivolous lawsuit — demanding that a 3rd year law student be investigated for circulating a satirical poster. The ridiculousness of the Federalist Society — staunch defenders of free speech and critics of “cancel culture” — moving to cancel someone for making fun of them has taken up a lot of media space, trending for several hours on Twitter, and the name of our great university has been shamefully tethered to it.
As we learned from the Trump administration and others, frivolous lawsuits are meant to tie up energy and resources and to warn people not to do or say anything that might offend people with plentiful resources and networks. They are not meant to be won, they are meant to warn people not to use their free speech rights. And our administration has again remained silent, meaning there is absolutely no disincentive for this kind of behavior.
The fact that after intense media scrutiny Stanford dropped the investigation and let the student graduate on time should not be seen as a vindication of the system. Rather the reverse — what this episode and Emily Wilder’s and others show is that we have a broken system.
We see this administration protect the free speech rights of COVID mis-informer Scott Atlas, but when Atlas tried to “cancel” faculty who used their free speech rights to criticize him, Stanford did not defend their rights; we see SCR’s malicious attacks on an alum go without comment, and we see a law student’s graduation held up so that our legal counsel could muddle through a frivolous complaint. Who is in power, and who is benefiting, and who is really being harmed, in real ways?
Three years ago I spoke at an event at the Faculty Senate. A panel that included our current dean of H&S, Debra Satz, and our current Law School dean, Jenny Martinez, as well as School of Graduate Education professor Eamonn Callan gave excellent presentations on academic freedom and free speech. When I spoke, I commended them, but I also pointed out the documents they had us read were from the 1990s. I urged the Senate to realize that since that time, the field of play had changed. I passed out reports from the American Association of University Professors, which had already begun to track the kinds of online tactics I mentioned above. I have met with and written to our leadership many times about this.
These sorts of attacks are nothing new, and we have had more than ample time to create a way that malicious, purposefully hurtful use of social media, by anyone or any organization, should be condemned, and fall under some disciplinary process. Without it, as one student said when our subcommittee on campus climate met with President Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Drell, “I am reluctant to say or write anything — I do not want to be the next Emily Wilder.” How can any educational institution live with that? The sad truth is that SCR and the Federalist Society and perhaps others in the making are playing Stanford like a fiddle.
In the absence of any robust action from the administration, many students, staff, faculty, and alumni are planning to do the only other thing left open to us — develop a broad, visible and loud network of mutual support. Since the current Stanford administration cannot find it within its power to say anything as heartfelt and precise as the words Donald Kennedy said, we will say it ourselves — the actions we have seen from these organizations, who put their interest before the interest of the Stanford community, are “vile, vicious and unworthy of Stanford.”
— David Palumbo-Liu
Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor
Professor of Comparative Literature and, by courtesy, of English