Opinion | Stanford must update its protections against hate speech

Opinion by Will Halverson
Jan. 17, 2022, 9:31 p.m.

Several months ago, I wrote a piece advocating for Stanford’s adoption of a hate speech code into its Fundamental Standard to prevent discriminatory verbal harassment on campus. In short, I argued that it would be legal and desirable for Stanford to re-introduce the Grey Interpretation, which interpreted the Fundamental Standard to impose consequences for hate speech. Nicholas Welch, in his response to my piece, argues that my faith in a reinvigorated hate speech code is “dangerously naïve.” Welch’s reply proceeds to misstate most of the arguments in my original speech, and for the arguments he does quote accurately, relies on hyperbole and strawman as a substitute for serious engagement. 

Welch’s first claim is that reintroducing a hate speech code would do nothing to prevent future instances of discriminatory harassment because of the unique characteristics of the Vinci incident. But hate speech on Stanford’s campus is not an isolated incident, as Welch seems to suggest. In 2017, Stanford College Republicans invited Robert Spencer to give a campus speech. Spencer is designated as an extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which describes him as “one of America’s most prolific and vociferous anti-Muslim propagandists.” In 2019, moreover, residents of Casa Zapata wrote to the Daily protesting the behavior of the SCR, who physically intimidated residents while attempting to forcibly enter Zapata after Zapata restricted visitors to prevent racialized, hateful graffiti. While Vinci may have suffered from a “severe mental health crisis,” that does not excuse his behavior, absolve him from the need for accountability or decouple him from the organization he identified with and whose values he merely took to the extreme. Hence the need for more stringent regulations on campus to prevent future instances of similar hate speech.

Next, Welch asks us to consider the nature of “identity” and how it could be applied to a revitalized hate speech code. Does Welch seriously believe that because there are “an infinite number of nontrivial ways to categorize identity characteristics,” we should simply give up on protecting marginalized groups from violence and discrimination? Welch’s complaint about “dumb blond” jokes reads like it came straight from a Turning Point USA Twitter rant. Welch is correct that, in the interest of space and reader engagement, my previous piece did not copy and paste the entire text of the Grey Interpretation of the Fundamental Standard (for those interested in reading it in its entirety, it can be found here). My paraphrasal, however, does not mean that the Grey Interpretation’s list of identity categories is arbitrary, as Welch seems to imply when he suggests hair color and height as two potential additions. Discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, handicap, religion, sexual orientation and national and ethnic origin in particular is unique because, unlike hair color and height, this type of discrimination is pervasive and societal, seriously affecting individuals’ mental health and life chances. That discrimination also often occurs in conjunction with physical abuse. Thus, Stanford should take special steps to prevent such harassment. Unless Welch is seriously comparing “dumb blond” jokes or assumptions about his basketball ability to persistent inequality and violence, it seems obvious that we can determine which forms of discrimination pose a serious threat to members of the Stanford community and respond to that discrimination accordingly (side note: as a ginger who is also 6’2”, I can confirm that none of the challenges Welch mentions are intolerable).

Welch next argues that “centralized administrations are not to be trusted with speech-regulating powers.” Again, Welch misses the point of my article. I am not advocating for Stanford to codify its support for one “social cause.” Instead, I am arguing that Stanford should protect the basic human dignity of its students. An anti-harassment provision would ensure that Stanford students could debate the merits of various social causes without being subjected to identity-based discrimination, which, as I noted, contravenes the goal of peaceful dialogue by “targeting individuals on the basis of their identity, not their ideas.” Welch’s point merely demonstrates the importance of anti-harassment provisions on college campuses. Identity-based harassment shuts down the productive dialogue that Stanford should be fostering.

Such demands for free speech are also often used as a false flag to shut down legitimate criticism of violent speech. Concern about First Amendment rights shifts the narrative away from discriminatory behavior and allows individuals like Welch to cast themselves as the real victims. Take, for example, SCR’s 2019 reaction to Casa Zapata’s visitor policy. Although the Zapata residents implemented more stringent visitor requirements to prevent hateful graffiti, SCR members sought to victimize themselves by demanding access to the building on the basis of free speech, while disregarding the concerns of the residents themselves. Welch’s plaintive account of the dumb blond jokes he’s experienced mirrors this pattern of distraction and denial.

Welch raises concerns about the psychologically taxing nature of the formal investigations that might result from Stanford’s reinstatement of a hate speech code. Applied to any other situation, Welch’s concern is clearly preposterous. Should murder investigations be halted because of the stress that is placed on the potential murderer? Should Stanford refuse to investigate sexual assault allegations to protect the assaulter from undue psychological strain? Why, then, should hate speech investigations be any different? As I noted, while investigations may be taxing, studies confirm that hate speech is also “particularly psychologically damaging” on college campuses. Allowing this psychological harm to continue in the name of the perpetrators’ mental wellbeing defies justice. Welch’s answer might be that restrictions on speech are different because they encourage “self-censorship.” Yet this concern lacks specificity. What would “self-censorship” look like? To the extent that privileged students might be incentivized to think twice before saying something potentially hateful, I see this as a positive. 

Welch’s next complaint once again illustrates his misguided understanding of my previous piece. The firing of Emmanual Cafferty and the suspension of USC Professor Greg Patton were unfortunate. Every code will occasionally be misapplied. But it would be wrong to dismiss all anti-hate speech efforts because of an anecdotal handful of wrongful terminations. Welch’s concern merely indicates the need for a precisely-written hate speech code, of which the Grey Interpretation did an exemplary job, as I noted in my previous piece. 

Finally, Welch takes issue with my description of the student body’s frustration with Stanford’s lack of transparency during the Vinci incident. Once more, Welch misconstrues my article. Privacy is an important right for all defendants, and a factual statement intended to provide context for a recent controversy in no way indicates my opposition to due process. Yet this final complaint illustrates the fundamental mismatch between Welch’s sensationalist vision of a reinvigorated hate speech code and the Grey Interpretation’s reality. Welch’s depiction of students being expelled willy-nilly mere hours after an allegation is lodged against them is scary, but it is also not a system for which I am advocating. Every student deserves a fair, thorough investigation of any harassment they are accused of committing. And if that investigation finds that a student is guilty of hate speech, that student should face real consequences. Any other policy ensures Stanford will remain an unsafe space unable to fulfill its educational mission. 

Will Halverson ’25 is an opinions writer at the Stanford Daily. Contact him at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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