In a move aimed at fostering free inquiry and the open exchange of ideas on campus, the Faculty Senate voted Thursday to approve an amended statement on freedom of expression and an amended policy on institutional statements, following a presentation on the final report of the Ad Hoc Committee on University Speech and a spirited discussion.

The two approved documents reaffirm and complement Stanford’s 1974 Statement on Academic Freedom amid contemporary challenges.

“Stanford has the opportunity to be a leader in higher education if we can come up with clear policies on some of these issues,” said Provost Jenny Martinez. “I don’t think any university has completely managed this, and I think it’s a key moment to [create] … a sort of broader set of university efforts not only to avoid things that inhibit free speech but to promote the culture of open inquiry that is part of our educational mission.”

The senate’s Steering Committee also received a joint resolution on the “State of First Amendment Protections” from the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), requesting the university to clarify its free speech policies, among other matters.

Academic freedom and speech

The Ad Hoc Committee on University Speech was created last year to assess constraints on academic freedom and speech at Stanford, share its findings, suggest improvements for academic speech protections, and strengthen the faculty’s role in these freedoms.

The committee engaged in extensive consultation with university community members and examined Stanford’s governing documents and processes related to speech, said Bernadette Meyler, chair of the Ad Hoc Committee on University Speech, during a presentation on the committee’s final report.

Guided by Stanford’s 1974 Statement on Academic Freedom and the 1896 Fundamental Standard, the committee identified common concerns contributing to a breakdown of trust around speech on campus: lack of clarity in speech policies; inconsistent enforcement; skepticism about when university leaders choose to weigh in on political controversies; and a chilling effect on speech even without explicit university restrictions, said Meyler, the Carl and Sheila Spaeth Professor of Law.

To address these issues, the committee recommended adopting new policies on the freedom of expression and on institutional statements, and extending the committee’s work for two more years. These steps aim to clarify the university’s speech policies, prioritize freedom of expression in decision-making by community members, and ensure consistent enforcement, Meyler said.

After amending it from a policy to a statement, the senate approved a Statement on Freedom of Expression at Stanford, which emphasizes Stanford’s longstanding commitment to free speech, as articulated in the 1974 Statement on Academic Freedom, while explaining the importance of time, place, and manner distinctions in the university’s educational mission and legal obligations:

Stanford is profoundly committed to freedom of expression, free inquiry, and the open exchange of ideas. Freedom of expression is a fundamental value for the university’s knowledge-bearing mission, alongside the inclusion of all viewpoints and the promotion of rigorous and reasoned academic debates. The freedom to explore and present new, unconventional, and even unpopular ideas is essential to the academic mission of the university; therefore, Stanford shall promote the widest possible freedom of expression, consistent with the university’s legal and moral obligations to prevent harassment and discrimination. Accordingly, university policies must not censor individuals’ speech based on the content of what is expressed, except in narrow circumstances.

At the same time, Stanford’s educational role as well as its academic and legal obligations differ across locations and contexts on campus, such as spaces open to all community members, classrooms, and dormitories. Community members also have varying privileges and responsibilities in different contexts. Likewise, legal rights and obligations pertain in different ways to community members depending on whether they are acting as students, teachers, staff, or faculty members. The principles of freedom of speech and expression will be understood in light of these variations across contexts and roles. The campus disruption policy furnishes an example of how some of these distinctions may be drawn.

The change from a policy to a statement reflects several senators’ concern that the term “policy” might imply a set of rigid guidelines, whereas “statement” was more appropriate for conveying broad principles and values. “It seems the title of the document might be incongruent with the purpose of the document as a statement on freedom of expression at Stanford,” said José Dinneny, professor of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Some senators also questioned the reference to time, place, and manner limitations, sparking lengthy discussion about specificity and precise legal language. Philip Levis, professor of computer science and of electrical engineering in the School of Engineering, argued that the policy’s second paragraph was unclear and could be interpreted in various ways, making it difficult to understand the boundaries of what is permitted under the proposed policy.

Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, called the desire to have everything spelled out in a formal way in such a short statement a “fool’s errand.” “This is gesturing at really important principles, and maybe they can be articulated better. … But I take this as a statement of value and principle. And as that, I think it’s fine for it to not be as precise as people are asking.”

Satz emphasized the importance of such a statement, especially now, saying, “Freedom of expression is under attack from outside the university and from inside. I think making a statement in favor [of free speech], and how its importance is really tied to our mission, it just seems to me like this is the moment to do it.”

Meyler agreed that more elaborate and specific policies around free speech will be needed and that a future committee working with a faculty leader appointed by the provost could take up this work. “We don’t have anything actually stating an affirmation of freedom of expression and a broad set of principles yet at Stanford, and so this is the first step – not a final step – toward actually doing that,” she said.

Institutional statements

The senate also approved an Institutional Statements Policy, which calls for institutional restraint in making statements and aims to prevent the establishment of institutional orthodoxy that might chill dissent. When institutional statements are made, they should align with Stanford’s core mission and values:

When speaking for the institution, Stanford University leaders and administrators should not express an opinion on political and social controversies, unless these matters directly affect the mission of the university or implicate its legal obligations. This policy draws on the rejection of institutional orthodoxy in Stanford’s 1974 Statement on Academic Freedom and aims to minimize the extent to which the university is subject to fluctuating political pressures.

​​When considering whether a measure directly affects the mission of the university, leaders and administrators should consider, among other factors, the nature of the university as a pluralistic forum in which “freedom of inquiry, thought, expression, publication, and peaceable assembly are given the fullest protection,” as well as Stanford’s Fundamental Standard.

The policy draws on Princeton’s tradition of institutional restraint and the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report. “We wanted to be clear that this isn’t actually about the university remaining neutral, but rather about the university affirming the internal values of the university as opposed to weighing in on external political and social controversy,” Meyler said.

Following lengthy discussion, the senate amended the policy to remove ambiguous language about when statements are appropriate.

The policy applies to the “Academic Organization Executive Officers of the University,” which includes leadership, vice provosts, deans, and others. Some senators wanted clarification on this group and asked why the directors of centers and institutes were not included. Richard Taylor, the Barbara Kimball Browning Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of mathematics, argued that no part of the university should take an institutional position on controversial matters.

Meyler agreed that a more defined list of who the policy applies to would be helpful and explained that the committee did not agree on whether the policy should also apply to the directors of centers and institutes, as these are often mission-driven, adding complexity.

Furthermore, people generally decide to join a center or institute because they align with its cause or mission. If a member disagrees with a center or institute’s statements, they can opt out, explained Mark Horowitz, a member of the committee. In contrast, faculty members cannot easily opt out of their department if they disagree with a statement made by a department chair.

Horowitz is the Fortinet Founders Chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and the Yahoo! Founders Professor in the School of Engineering and professor of computer science.

Continuing the work

Clarity is still needed on many issues such as campus spaces for free speech activity, speech policies in dormitories, and freedom of expression for staff, Meyler said.

The committee also proposed integrating academic freedom and freedom of expression into campus processes through educational initiatives and consistent policy enforcement.

To better protect community members from harassment based on their speech, the committee suggested revising anti-doxxing policies, consolidating and publicizing recording policies, implementing recommendations from the earlier Faculty Senate Report on Faculty Legal Representation, and adopting the Chatham House Rule in classes, among other measures. Under the Chatham House Rule, participants can discuss class comments but cannot reveal the identity or affiliation of the speaker.

A third motion to extend the committee’s work for two more years, with a faculty leader appointed by the provost to help implement new policies and address complexities discussed in the committee’s report, will be taken up at a future meeting. The senate lost quorum to vote on the matter Thursday.