I want to address the climate on Stanford’s campus in light of the conflict in the Middle East.  The horrifying terrorist attack by Hamas on civilians in Israel on October 7 and the ensuing war in Gaza continue to dominate the news. Those with family and friends in the region are filled with grief and anxiety, and we mourn for those in our community who have lost loved ones in Israel or in Gaza or fear for their safety. The tragic civilian death toll and graphic images of violence impact all who are following the situation.

It is a tense and fearful time for many on campus. The president and I have been meeting and speaking with Jewish students, faculty, and alumni who are grieving and who identify connections between the wanton violence of the Hamas attack against civilians, Hamas’ professed aim of destroying Israel, and centuries of antisemitic violence, displacement, pogroms, and other genocidal projects. The statistics about rising antisemitic incidents around the country and globe are deeply troubling. Jewish and Israeli students describe being fearful as they walk around campus, feeling that they are targets of hate because of their identity and fearing an outbreak of violence.

I want to be unequivocally clear that Stanford stands against antisemitism and recognizes the deep historical roots of this form of hate and the ways in which Jewish students, faculty, and staff are affected by this historical legacy and its current manifestations.

We have also met with Palestinian and other Muslim community members, who also fear for their safety and describe troubling incidents and interactions rooted in Islamophobia. For example, women who wear hijabs describe being followed and the sense of vulnerability that comes with being a member of a religious minority; other students describe receiving threatening messages and phone calls. They feel that their grief at the deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza has been unacknowledged, their civilian dead unmourned. There is disturbing evidence of increases in hate crimes against Muslims nationally since October 7th as well, including the murder of a six-year-old Palestinian child in Chicago. I also want to be clear that Stanford stands against Islamophobia, and all forms of hatred and discrimination on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, or national origin.

Stanford’s Threat Assessment Team and its Department of Public Safety are working closely with state and federal law enforcement partners and other outside law enforcement experts to ensure campus security. DPS has worked in collaboration with centers on campus, including Hillel and the Markaz, to ensure that their particular security needs are addressed. DPS has also been present at campus events and facilities to provide security support, and is working to respond to and investigate individual concerns reported to law enforcement.

Law enforcement can and will assist in these and other ways, but ultimately, the climate and security of the university is a collective enterprise. There is every indication that this will be a sustained conflict. Everyone in our community has a responsibility to promote constructive forms of engagement and to reject discrimination on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, and national origin. We vindicate that responsibility by caring for each other – not because we have similar views on the conflict, but precisely because the conflict affects us differently and will continue to do so.

Students are engaged in expressing their views about the conflict in a variety of ways, including demonstrations, posters, and in-person and online conversations. Our commitment as a university is to substantive and informed discourse grounded in mutual recognition of human dignity. The free expression of ideas necessarily includes protection for some forms of controversial and even offensive speech, both as a matter of Stanford’s policy on Academic Freedom, adopted by the Faculty Senate in 1974, and California’s Leonard Law, which prohibits private universities like Stanford from punishing students for expression protected by the First Amendment. At the same time, categories of speech like threats, harassment, and incitement to violence are not protected by the First Amendment and will not be tolerated at Stanford. It is important for everyone to understand that the threshold for legally unprotected speech is actually quite high. The First Amendment protects a great deal of speech that people find objectionable, even offensive and hateful. I encourage community members to read Stanford’s website related to Freedom of Speech and the Fundamental Standard to understand these rules. For each complaint regarding offensive speech by students, the university must work closely with legal experts to ensure that responses are consistent with the speaker’s First Amendment rights.

Violence on campus is completely unacceptable. We are also concerned about language that could be understood as calling for violence. Even when such language does not meet the legal threshold for threats and incitement, it causes fear and concern. When emotions are high, words can escalate into action. This is particularly so in the case of calls for violence on the basis of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate. Even when protected by the First Amendment, such calls for hate-based violence are morally repugnant. Moreover, hate-based calls for violence do not meaningfully contribute to the free exchange of ideas on campus; rather, they make people afraid to participate in public life.

There are actually multiple challenges at this moment in terms of the climate for speech. While some on campus are certainly speaking their minds, and a few are pushing the boundaries with inflammatory rhetoric, I am also quite concerned about the chilling effect of the current environment on speech. Fears of being targeted for harassment or doxxed have left many afraid of sharing their views at all. Some who would like to learn more about the history and context of the Israeli-Palestinian situation are hesitant even to ask questions, for fear that what they say may be misconstrued; nuance and complexity vanish based on fear of misinterpretation. As the U.S. Supreme Court has said time and again, freedom of expression requires breathing room.  Shutting down speech on a topic is not healthy for a democracy or a university. The theory of free speech is that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that suppressing ideas leaves them to fester, when probing and public examination are more conducive to discovering truth.

We are working with faculty to put on programming in the coming weeks related to the history and context of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and with experts on the Middle East to deepen understanding of the current conflict. We hope that students and others will take the opportunity to learn. Stanford should not be a place where people experience fear of violence or hatred based on their religion or ethnicity. It also must be a place where people can freely exchange ideas. There are no easy answers, but we hope that in discussing the crisis, students and other members of our community can approach one another with compassion and respect for our shared humanity.

Here, now, in this meeting, and in countless interactions across this campus, the members of this community have an opportunity to embody the principles that make higher education work.  These principles are free inquiry, analytic rigor, evidence-based argument, emotional acuity, and curiosity about what people of widely divergent perspectives, identities, expertise, and experiences feel, believe, and have to say. These principles are foundational to higher education because our mission is to ask the hardest questions about every aspect of human experience, to generate compelling answers, and to put taken-for-granted assumptions to the acid test of critical inquiry. Asking the hardest questions and testing answers in constructive ways not only leads to better decisions, it helps create better decision makers.

Fear, intimidation, enmity, ideological tests, demagoguery, propaganda, provocation to violence, glorification of violence, and countless other social forces are constantly seeking to supplant free inquiry. Evidence of the illiberal and destructive power of these forces can be found in both democratic and authoritarian regimes, in times of both war and peace.

Every member of the Stanford community has a responsibility to uphold the principles that make higher education work. That responsibility matters most not when discussing topics that are abstract, historical, or conjectural, but when addressing topics that involve acute human suffering and injustice. It is in these moments that we are most susceptible to inflict the very harms we have suffered upon others; to ignore, minimize or rationalize the suffering of others differently situated but no less human; and to conflate violence with the very difficult work of seeking justice to be done and building a better world. Indeed, it is precisely in these moments that sound decisions reached in open deliberation with other thoughtful, compassionate decision makers are most needed.

Neither the president nor I can compel the members of Stanford’s community to observe these principles that make higher education work. That is the nature of responsibility – each of us has to embrace it. To attempt to compel it is self-defeating. Instead I want to invite reflection on this shared responsibility.