Online harassment prompts student concerns over Fundamental Standard

Sept. 23, 2021, 9:37 p.m.

Stanford’s Fundamental Standard, an internal code of conduct setting out behavioral expectations for students, has remained relatively unchanged for over a century since it was first established.

But recent controversies have put the standard to the test as to whether it can effectively govern campus conduct in an increasingly online world. 

In May, Emily Wilder ’20 was fired from the Associated Press following an online hit campaign orchestrated by the Stanford College Republicans for statements made in college. One month later, Stanford threatened to revoke a law student’s diploma following a Fundamental Standard complaint over a politically satirical email he had sent. And in September, students cited the Fundamental Standard in calls for Chaze Vinci, a former member of the Class of 2023, to be expelled for racist and violent social media messages.

Some students and community members see inconsistencies in the way the Standard is applied, not to mention its perceived lack of application in cases of hate speech or online harassment. If Stanford is unable to find a way to consistently apply its Fundamental Standard to online discourse in the future, students worry that unacceptable and threatening speech may go unchecked.

“Right now, there’s one standard for all of these really different types of potential misconduct,” said Nicholas Wallace J.D. ’21, the student whose diploma was temporarily revoked. “As a law student, I can’t help but think about how our actual legal codes work. We don’t have one law that applies to all these different types of misconduct, and there is a really important reason for that.”

In today’s digital age, community members have far more avenues for misconduct than they have in the past. Discourse that occurs off campus creates blurry boundaries between what is in Stanford’s jurisdiction and what is not. When online, it is also easier for students to hide behind aliases and student organizations that mask individual identities. The character of online attacks is also more vicious — students have repeatedly reported doxxing, and attacks can easily spread beyond the Stanford community.

The advent of social media has “created a whole set of new forums, not restricted to the Stanford community, that facilitate behaviors inconsistent with the spirit of the Fundamental Standard but largely protected from sanction under the First Amendment,” said Tom Wasow, a linguistics professor who serves as Academic Secretary for the Faculty Senate.

Wasow and other faculty members have reason to hope that such a change could be just around the corner. In 2019, Stanford charged a committee of 10 Stanford community members (C-10) — four faculty members, four students and two staff — with revising the University’s judicial processes, the Fundamental Standard and the Honor Code. 

As the committee approaches a final proposal, members have said that the changes intend to clarify and position Stanford’s goal of free exchange of ideas as central, and remove and replace outmoded language with an eye toward clarity of expectation.

“The goal that we’re really wanting to push forward is that this is a community and it’s all of us working together,” Jamie Fine, a fifth-year modern thought and literature Ph.D. student and member of the C-10, said during a Graduate Student Council meeting on June 16. “What we want to do is raise, grow, develop and educate student-citizens who are going to leave Stanford and take values with them that are going to help them and help the society they go to.”

But while the changes are still being finalized behind closed doors, preliminary signs indicate that the bulk of the changes will concern the interpretation, rather than the letter, of the Fundamental Standard. Indeed, the original charge asked the committee to only examine whether the Standard needs “interpretative refinements.”

Wallace is looking for more. He said he hopes the University will view his situation as a wake up call that there need to be transformative changes to the community standards processes.

The University specifies that the Fundamental Standard has been “applied to a great variety of situations,” with a set of unspecified penalties that range from a formal warning to expulsion from Stanford. On its website, Stanford clarifies what types of speech are protected by state and federal laws, and offers resources for students impacted by hateful speech.

But when Wallace started receiving “vaguely threatening” emails from the Office of Community Standards notifying him that he was under a Fundamental Standard investigation in May, just weeks before his scheduled graduation and amid final exams, he knew nothing about the potentially life-altering process he was facing.

“Before then, I had literally never heard of the Fundamental Standard, so when I got the complaint I initially thought it was an Honor Code violation,” Wallace said. “I had no idea what the Fundamental Standard was and what kind of conduct it would allow or prohibit.”

The lack of specificity within the Fundamental Standard and the minimal awareness on campus of the code itself are not the only areas of concern. To some, the trouble with the Fundamental Standard goes hand-in-hand with the fact that it is such a top-down policy.

To prepare for his case, Wallace convened a team of Law School colleagues who specialized in First Amendment law and could back him up in discussions with the University. For students without the same connections, however, going through the Fundamental Standard process may be even more terrifying than it was for Wallace, he said.

“I think it’s very likely that an undergrad, or someone who is not a law student in the same situation would have gone through the entire process without even realizing that the University was violating their rights,” Wallace said. “There’s just a massive imbalance in the kind of understanding and ability to navigate this process that I think could be really unfair for a lot of students.”

Faculty do not seem to be united on whether significant changes to the Fundamental Standard’s process are necessary, however. To former Stanford provost John Etchemendy, who now serves as a representative on the Faculty Senate, the Fundamental Standard effectively articulates “timeless principles,” whose applications have not materially evolved over the years. In the cases of Wilder and Wallace, Etchemendy said that the right decisions were clear, and that the University “ultimately did the right thing.”

“In the first case, my understanding is that the attack was orchestrated by an alumnus (using an SCR account) against an alumna, so neither of the parties were current students,” Etchemendy said. “In the second, the message strikes me as a transparent case of satire. The fact that it was not immediately dismissed as such simply reflects the fact that the university is a very large organization, and not all decisions are well considered.”

Other faculty members hold a different view of the state of discourse on campus. In 2018, the Faculty Senate convened a subcommittee chaired by comparative literature professor David Palumbo-Liu to consider ways to improve the campus climate without replacing or altering the Fundamental Standard. According to Palumbo-Liu, part of the solution may lie in community introspection at Stanford.

Recently, the subcommittee concluded that, “no code of conduct will be effective if it does not emanate from students themselves,” according to Palumbo-Liu. As a result, the subcommittee will recommend that the University move forward with a community-formulated code of conduct intended to be independent of the Fundamental Standard.

“We want students to be able to debate, discuss, and decide what kind of community they want, and then to articulate the values and behaviors they wish to promote,” Palumbo-Liu said. “We have already begun discussions with the President and the Provost. They agree that messaging and leadership from above is very important, but that students are the ones who have the best insights into what they would want most, and least, in a community.”

This type of community-written conduct policy may not be necessary if it weren’t for the shortcomings of the Fundamental Standard, however.

Despite graduating in June, Wallace has been advocating for changes to the OCS processes since his case was dismissed, proposing changes to how the University screens for protected speech, deals with bad-faith complaints and communicates the policy to students.

“I’m concerned that the lesson the University is going to draw from my situation is going to be a really narrow one around satirical emails specifically, or law students specifically, for example,” Wallace said. “I’m afraid that the University in a few months is going to make some little tweaks and say ‘look we fixed it.’ I want part of the conversation around all this to be about what actually needs to happen to solve the problems at hand.”

Tammer Bagdasarian '24 is an Executive Editor for The Daily, and is planning to major in Communication and Political Science. He previously served as a News Managing Editor. Contact him at tbagdasarian 'at'

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