Stanford: Stand for free speech? Exchange of ideas?

Or not, any longer?

I’m pulling for you, Stanford. You’re a great university. And great universities are based on the great intellectual tradition of teaching and learning in the classical pedagogical exchange, speaking and listening, reasoning and debate, engagement in the arena of ideas.

Controversies erupted there, as they did across campuses in the U.S. over the years, but you’ve worked to address those.

…these campus controversies from the 1980s and early 1990s have an interesting and little known postscript. Close observers of the campus political scene know that during the past 25 years Stanford has actually done a relatively good job of keeping campus political controversies out of the news. In fact, some people have speculated that Stanford has made a deliberate effort to admit a larger number of undergraduates with interests in the hard sciences, engineering, and computer science – hoping these sorts of students would be less likely to engage in political activism or create controversy around campus.

When I was pursuing my doctorate in political science at Stanford between 1997 and 2002, the campus was certainly liberal, but conservative ideas could still receive a hearing.

Only to a certain degree, as alumna Jennifer Bryson points out in her excellent article in Public Discourse. The sincerity of her regret that Stanford is back in the news for intolerance of free speech comes through clearly in this piece.

Stanford University is once again facing controversy about freedom of speech on campus. Today, the issue is a student group, the Stanford Anscombe Society, which supports man-woman marriage and plans to hold a conference in early April. Students active in LGBTQ causes would like to prevent this conference from taking place.

Stanford has been through sharp controversy before; in the 1980s, for instance, students favoring legal abortion physically prevented a speaker hosted by Stanford Students for Life from speaking on campus. Back then the university’s response to this was a resounding affirmation of the university’s (unofficial) motto, “The winds of freedom blow” (“Die Luft der Freiheit weht”).

During the 1988-1989 academic year, when I was a senior at Stanford, I was involved in Stanford Students for Life. One evening, we brought pro-life activist Randall Terry to speak at the university.

On the evening of that event, Annenberg auditorium at Stanford was full. It was clear that a significant portion of those attending opposed Randall Terry and Stanford Students for Life. They were welcome to attend the event. Yet problems began when Terry tried to speak and opponents in the audience refused to become quiet. The heckling became progressively louder and more aggressive. After several minutes of this escalation, Terry told the audience that he would do something he normally does not do. He would forgo the talk he had planned to give and would instead make himself available for the entire event to answer questions from the audience.

At this, the heckling only got even louder and more aggressive. Opponents of the event started to stand up and shout, and—as more and more people rose from their seats—they began to spill over into the aisles. Terry was trying to listen to questions from the audience, but they could not be heard. Tensions rose as opponents moved down the aisles, flooding the stage and seizing the microphone out of Terry’s hands. At that point, the event ended.

That’s a shame, isn’t it? Whole groups of people shouting down the voice of one person representing a view they oppose is so unreasonable, uncharitable and unjust. And frankly, intolerant. Which is a rich irony.

Administration officials tried to make amends, to their credit, and Bryson does indeed grant that well deserved credit as “a testament to the excellence of Stanford University.”

This university administrator requested that if, in the future, Stanford Students for Life were to invite another controversial speaker, that we would notify the university in advance. That way, the university could provide security to assure that freedom of speech was protected at Stanford.

Fantastic.

This experience increased my respect for Stanford and has remained strong in my memory. However, that does not mean that Stanford was always an easy environment for me. And that’s okay. Because, let us not forget, the mission of a university is not to coddle its students with homogeneity.

Regarding her opposition to the upcoming Anscombe Society conference, Stanford undergraduate Brianne Huntsman said, “A lot of students who are queer come to Stanford because it’s one of the most LGBT-friendly places in the world.” While this may be one factor in their decision to attend Stanford, the primary reason for students to attend Stanford should be to pursue an education. Stanford is, at its essence, a university. It is not a club. It is not a support group. The mission of Stanford is not to provide a comforting environment for those who have the fortune of spending time there. Rather, as a University, Stanford should challenge students to grow, to explore, to seek what is true, to pursue excellence, and to develop capacities that will enable them to serve the welfare of society and human flourishing.

Huntsman also said, “Stanford is supposed to be a safe space for us.” Certainly, these students should feel that there is security on the Stanford campus, as there should be security from physical harm for every single member of the Stanford community and visitors on campus.

But the university does not owe anyone an emotionally or intellectually comfortable environment. Stanford is, after all, part of the real world.

As a pro-life woman at Stanford, I never experienced Stanford as a “friendly” place, and in many ways I did not experience it to be a “safe” place. Yet instead of trying to get Stanford to silence anyone who opposed me, I felt the best response to this was to seek to become better informed and to take part in public activism to help foster an overarching culture in which women, though they may not be treated in a “friendly” way, could at least feel safe.

Read the whole piece, it’s an extraordinary witness to classical academic excellence, the role of a university, where competing ideas have a place to be heard, challenged and defended. Where minds are expanded by hearing views outside a familiar sphere of thinking, where engagement with the modern world is enlarged by encountering it openly, appreciating the diversity while holding beliefs up to the test of true light.

Which gets to the reason Stanford is back in the news now. An event sponsored by the Anscombe Society. On marriage.

Bryson continues:

I loved Stanford because it was an environment filled with challenges and opportunities to learn, filled with people very different from me from whom I learned perhaps more outside the classroom than I did inside.

The world is not an emotionally friendly place. Nor, in many instances, is the world a safe place. This is reality. I loved Stanford because Stanford was a reality-filled environment that pushed me, challenged me, expanded my horizons, and prepared me to engage in the world full-steam-ahead when I left campus.

Had Stanford silenced those who opposed me, because those who opposed me were “unfriendly” to me (and some of them were literally unfriendly to me), the university would have failed in its role as a university. I think the protestors who silenced Randall Terry, rather than listening to what he had to say, failed in this instance in their role as students.

Today, as the Anscombe Society’s conference approaches, Stanford risks a rerun of this twenty-five year-old debacle. The stakes are high, implicating not only this one university, but also our society as a whole, in which tensions over issues of marriage and sex run very high.

I have admired Jennifer Bryson since I first started reading her articles, even more so when I learned of her work and interviewed her as my guest on radio. And that respect has grown ever since, in following the work she does advocating for those discriminated against or otherwise vulnerable, for a world and global community open to diversity and freedom and human rights.

She puts it so much better than I could, in sum.

The Anscombe Society has invited speakers who seek to address these issues in a thoughtful, civil manner. Listening in a correspondingly thoughtful and civil manner, regardless of one’s views, will accomplish far more to build a culture in which we can live peacefully together than would any effort to silence the Anscombe Society and their invited guests. Mutual understanding is not the same thing as mutual agreement. Agreement is an unlikely outcome of the conference, but let us at least seek to understand each other. Only on a foundation of understanding can we seek a way to move forward, learning to live peacefully and respectfully with our differences.

Trying to silence others because one fears what they might say is no way to learn. And it is no way for a university to be a university. Instead, let the winds of freedom blow.

Some speech isn’t free

The Bible says ‘be prepared to make a defense for what you believe.’ Illinois and Chicago politics say ‘be prepared to pay to play.’ Entirely different things, but somehow they seem to come together in this story…

If you have to pay to register your comments on an online story, will you be more civil? Intriguing question.

Comments on news stories are, in a sense, our new civic space, but minus all the social rules that generally govern face-to-face interactions between real human beings.

An idea that’s been gaining traction this year is that it’s the anonymity provided by the Internet that has turned many commenters into vicious jerks, so newspapers should require people to use their real names. Certainly Twitter has a much nicer tone, perhaps because all the nasty things people might say would be attached to their name and face.

Some media outlets are turning to the novel idea of accountability as a civilizing force when nothing else has the power to influence moderation.

A small paper based in Attleboro, Massachusetts near the state’s border with Rhode Island, has an idea. Henceforth, to comment at The Sun Chronicle you’ll need to pay 99 cents… with a credit card. And the name on your comments will be the name on your card.

Have a strong opinion? Want to enter the arena of ideas to express it, or just spout off? It’s inevitable that the leveling force of the interent would find a way to make you pay for it. Whether this was designed to capitalize on those who engage in intellectual discourse, or those who have never had an unexpressed thought…ideas have conseuences. And this is one way to prove it.