One of the free speech issues that we have previously discussed is whether universities are effectively curtailing free speech through student surrogates on campus. We have seen student government bodies and boards engage in blatant content-based discrimination in exercising their control over budgets or publications (here and here and here). The latest example comes from Stanford University where the student government voted against approving a $6,000 grant request from the College Republicans to help host former Vice President Mike Pence for a campus speech. That’s right, they voted against supporting the right of other students to hear from a former Vice President of the United States.
The College Republicans needed 8 votes to approve the funding. However, the final vote was 7 in favor, 7 in abstention, and 1 in opposition. Somehow the seven students not voting considered that act to be more ethical than just being honest and voting against the funding. It had the same effect. Despite only one student voting against the speech, the school refused to support a former vice president coming to its campus to address faculty and students.
The vote captures the rise of intolerance and speech controls sweeping over our campuses. This is a vice president who played a historic role in defying a president to certify the vote on January 6th. He did the right thing. However, whether you agree or disagree with him, this is an opportunity for students to listen and question someone who held the second highest office in the country and served in a critical capacity in a number of key policy areas, including the election and the pandemic. However, a majority of Stanford students in this vote refused to approve a small level of funding for the event.
One interesting element is that university rules require that events needing security must secure over 50% of funding from on-campus sources. That guarantees this type of control by student government leaders — authority that was abused in this case. Previously the Undergraduate Senate initially blocked conservative speaker Dinesh D’Souza.
Conversely, Stanford students approved sponsorship for an array of highly controversial speakers from the left including Professor Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi has written highly offensive commentary, including questioning the adoption of two Haitian children by Justice Amy Coney Barrett as illustrative of “white colonizer” values.
While Kendi’s event was opposed by conservatives on campus, I believe that all of these voices should be welcomed on campuses. Higher education is supposed to foster rigorous and passionate debate. These speakers are part of that spectrum of viewpoints that add to our rigorous debates and dialogues on social issues. For example, Kendi insists that “The life of racism cannot be separated from the life of capitalism. In order to truly be antiracist, you also have to truly be anti-capitalist.” That would make for a fascinating debate on any campus. Kendi has also called for a “Department of Antiracism” that would be able to oppose “racist ideas” and even veto or nullify any law at any level of government run counter to an “antiracist” agenda. That proposal runs afoul of a host of constitutional guarantees but again it is the type of viewpoint that can lead to substantive debate.
The actions of the Stanford students shows again that we have a rising generation of censors who have been told that barring free speech is a form of free speech. A new poll shows roughly half of the public supporting not just corporate censorship but government censorship of anything deemed “misinformation.”
They learned this intolerance from academic and journalistic figures of my generation. Faculty and editors are now actively supporting modern versions of book-burning with blacklists and bans for those with opposing political views. Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll has denounced the “weaponization” of free speech, which appears to be the use of free speech by those on the right. So the dean of one of the premier journalism schools now supports censorship. Free speech advocates are facing a generational shift that is now being reflected in our law schools, where free speech principles were once a touchstone of the rule of law. As millions of students are taught that free speech is a threat and that “China is right” about censorship, these figures are shaping a new society in their own intolerant images.
The Stanford vote will be appealed and could be reversed. However, that does not alter the disgraceful initial vote or its implications for free speech at Stanford.