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Faculty Senate remarks on speech that limits others’ speech

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne made these comments at the Faculty Senate meeting on June 10, 2021.

Following some recent incidents, I addressed the issue of free speech and inclusion at a university town hall two weeks ago. You may have seen those comments in Stanford Report. I want to elaborate on them today in light of an additional incident that has occurred since.

In my town hall comments, I made two points.

First, given that the university is an institution committed to the exchange of ideas, freedom of expression is core to our mission and academic life. Protections are afforded our faculty and students in the exercise of these rights.

But 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.

In particular, the use of free expression rights that is aimed not at engaging with and debating ideas, but rather at suppressing and silencing them, actually undermines what we value about free expression.

Now, the university can’t mandate that people engage with each other in respectful ways. But we can and must champion respectful engagement of diverse perspectives.

These ideas are not new. For example, in 2019 this Senate passed a resolution reaffirming a 2015 resolution imploring “all members of the Stanford community to observe mutual respect and civility in the debate of controversial issues.”

Today, I want to touch on three types of threats to the open exchange that is so vital to the university, all of which involve the suppressing or silencing of others in some manner.

The first is the use of social media to name-call or shame those with particular views. One extreme and especially troubling form of this is the phenomenon of doxing, which often invades privacy, distorts or purposely misconstrues speech and is aimed to harm, and which in some cases, includes amplification by media platforms external to Stanford.

These acts are typically not intended to engage people in useful conversation or debate. They are meant to silence. When this occurs, it is not just the targeted individual who is harmed – our educational mission is harmed as well, as community members become wary of using their free speech rights for fear that they might be the next target.

A second threat is the silencing of those with particular views that can happen more locally, on campus, whether in the dorm, the classroom or other settings. These are cases where people are left fearful of challenging a particular viewpoint, and again their speech is constrained.

These two classes of actions may involve legally protected speech, but they go counter to what we aspire to as a community.

There is also a third area of concern in which it is the university’s own procedures and actions that may have the effect of suppressing speech. An example of this occurred last week when a student in the law school had their diploma put on hold while a satirical piece they had written was being investigated.

Provost Drell will speak to details of this incident in a moment. Let me just say that we, the university, were at fault in our handling of this situation. Many are understandably troubled by what occurred, which has the potential to chill speech, and I can assure you the provost and I take accountability for it. We are working to correct this, as she will describe.

However, what is not within the power of the university leadership to achieve on its own is to foster a culture in which individuals do not use their free speech rights to try to suppress those of others, whether through aggressive actions like doxing or by other actions.

Fostering such a culture requires us to work together as a community.

I am hopeful that the new COLLEGE curriculum, by asking all our incoming undergraduates to reflect on their roles as citizens, will help nurture that culture. And, I am heartened by the efforts of the Faculty Senate, through the PPB and the Committee of 10, to explore these issues and advance recommendations.

The provost and I want to work with you to elevate discourse, advance inclusivity and ensure that Stanford is a place where students and faculty do not live in fear that expressing their views will put them in harm’s way.