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Remarks on our campus climate for discussing divergent views

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne made the following remarks as part of a Campus Conversation with the Stanford community on May 26, 2021.

I would like to address the nature of the conversations and discussions we have in our university community. Over the past several months, including in recent days, the provost and I have heard repeatedly from people of varied perspectives in our university community expressing concern that others, who hold different views from their own, are engaging in speech that intimidates, or silences, or otherwise harms people.

We’ve heard these concerns from students, and also from faculty and staff. Sometimes, it has to do with an incident that has occurred on social media. In other cases, it’s about something that has occurred in a class or in our community at large. The concerns come from people on all sides of the political spectrum, and different issues have had often very different levels of visibility to the broader community.

These concerns are fundamentally about the climate we have in our community for the discussion of divergent views.

What I would like to express today has two parts: First, free expression is essential to the life of the university. Second, what is legally permissible to say is not necessarily the same as what we should aspire to as an intellectual community. We should seek a higher level of discourse than we sometimes see at Stanford.

Several years ago, Persis and I posted a piece on the web, titled “Advancing free speech and inclusion,” that explained our approach to these issues.

First, as a university, we deeply value free expression. The ability to express a broad diversity of ideas and viewpoints is fundamental to the university’s mission of seeking truth through research and education, and to preparing students for a world in which they will engage with diverse points of view every day. The administration is not the speech police; on the contrary, we seek to facilitate the exchange of a broad diversity of ideas.

Second, when there is speech or conduct that someone objects to, we have processes in the university for reviewing specific complaints and determining if the action violates university policy. It’s important to understand that the bar is high for determining that speech has violated our policies. For instance, under the Leonard Law in California, the university cannot discipline students for speech that is protected by the First Amendment. The speech must meet a high legal threshold for unprotected speech, such as establishing a clear physical threat toward a specific individual.

But the fact that one is free to say something in a particular way doesn’t mean that one should. This is a choice each of us has to make. And I believe, as a university, we should seek a high standard for the quality of discussion and debate in our community.

Actions aimed not at engaging with and debating ideas but rather at suppressing them, including using social media to name-call or shame those with particular views – these go counter to what is needed to foster the open inquiry that our mission calls for.

As president, I cannot mandate that people engage with each other in respectful ways, and the university cannot sanction people for what they say, absent a finding in a university process of the kind I mentioned. But I can champion respectful engagement; and I believe it is critical to this university that we are able to hear views and perspectives from across the ideological spectrum, and that we are able to engage with and debate those views in constructive ways.

As members of this community, we will disagree on many things. We also have much to learn from one another and our differing views. Our common humanity should compel us to honor the dignity of one another as members of this community, even as we disagree. We also should value and model reasoned, fact-based discussion. It will produce deeper understanding, more learning from one another, more receptivity to the viewpoints we are seeking to advance, and a greater capacity to adjust our preconceptions in light of new information. I believe it is the kind of discussion our broader world needs, as well.