Why Does Stanford Have Speech Police?

At a recent Stanford Senate meeting, President Tessier-Lavigne declared he did not want the Faculty Senate “to set itself up as a thought police.” I also do not want to see anyone at Stanford act as “thought police”, but experiences during my 34 years at Stanford tell me that some people at Stanford do act as “speech police.” 

Many years ago, I attended a sexual harassment prevention training session. I participated in a moot court exercise where a Stanford supervisor was sued for displaying French postcards in his office. No one claimed that French postcards were obscene.  One assistant did not like their presence in her supervisor’s office but never told him. Instead, she made a sexual harassment claim. After the many moot juries delivered their decisions, I asked the moot court judge about the importance of Freedom of Speech in this matter. A Stanford lawyer did not allow the judge to answer and emphatically declared “There is no freedom of speech at Stanford.” I know that Stanford does not have the same free speech obligations as public universities, but I was disturbed by the Stanford lawyer’s uncompromising attitude.

Stanford does have rules that regulate speech. Stanford’s Standards of Integrity and Quality declares:

“Stanford recognizes that it must earn and maintain a reputation for integrity that includes, but is not limited to, compliance with laws and regulations and its contractual obligations. Even the appearance of misconduct or impropriety can be damaging to the University. Stanford must strive at all times to maintain the highest standards of integrity and quality.

“There are times when Stanford’s business activities and other conduct of its University Community members are not governed by specific laws or regulations. In these instances, rules of fairness, honesty, and respect for the rights of others will govern our conduct at all times.

I suggest that you speak with someone who has had to deal with accusations of violating these vague rules.

More recently, Stanford attacked my effort to express my political opinions and invite others to join that expression. I was appalled at the events of January 6, 2021. Many people believe the Hoover Institution is a pro-Trump organization; in fact, some Hoover visitors tell me they hide the fact they visit Hoover, instead telling their friends that they are visiting Stanford. I knew that many at Hoover did not support Trump, so I decided to do something that proved Hoover is home to a variety of political opinions.

On January 7, 2021, I created a web page named “Trump Must Go”. The text began with a public statement made by Jim Mattis, a Hoover Fellow who was Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, condemning Trump, and went on to call for Congress and/or the Cabinet to remove Trump immediately. I invited Hoover Fellows and staff to add their names if they agreed. I quickly received endorsements from twelve Hoover Fellows. Tom Sargent, a Nobel Laureate, was first. Another endorsement came from a Hoover Fellow who ran in a Republican Congressional primary in Spring, 2020. I was happy with the initial response.

Some Hoover Fellows were not happy. On January 8, 2021, I received two emails from Dan Kessler. One email was sent to all Hoover Fellows. It declared that I did not use University resources to undertake my communications, tacitly recognizing that there was no Stanford rule against my emails to Fellows. Kessler then declared “Speaking personally (not in my role as research director), I find Ken’s emails unwelcome and inappropriate.” I am often appalled at statements of my Hoover colleagues but I do not respond in that way. Kessler is free to express his opinion but, because the email came from someone who had and has significant influence over their research funding and salary increases, it likely had a chilling effect. That was the effect on me because of funding disagreements I had had with Kessler the previous autumn.

Stanford University is supposed to be neutral when scholars express political views, and its notion of neutrality is very flexible. Stanford University often helped pro-Trump people express their views. For example, Victor Davis Hanson gave a talk about his book The Case for Trump at a fundraising event, and copies of his book were distributed. University resources were also used to advertise endorsements of Trump made by Stanford people before the 2020 election. I agree that this all falls under the umbrella of academic freedom and freedom of speech. I do not see how my effort to give an opportunity for Hoover Fellows to join me in expressing anti-Trump opinions was not also treated in the same way.

The other email was sent to me and cc’d to members of Hoover Leadership. Kessler said Stanford rules require any message I send to staff involve University business, and threatened “If you continue to send emails to Hoover Staff that do not involve University business …  I will request that University Human Resources consider disciplinary action.” I immediately ended my effort when I read that threat. I asked him to point to the rule I had violated. He never responded. Since then, many Stanford administrators have told me that they do not know of any such rule.

Kessler’s actions to prevent staff from expressing their support were particularly objectionable. I suspect many Hoover staff of Mexican descent were appalled at Trump’s declaration “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re rapists”. In his book The Case for Trump Hanson describes this as Trump’s “clumsy exaggeration of the number of violent criminals who came into the United States illegally”. I suspect some staff (like me) would not agree with that interpretation but if they disagreed with Hanson, they acted professionally while performing any tasks they did to support that event. My website was the one place someone gave them a chance to express their opinion about President Trump. Stanford GSB and Law Professor Kessler seems to say that staff at Hoover are to be seen and not heard. I disagree. Based on my 34 years at Hoover, I know that many Hoover staff have more common sense than some of my colleagues who are allowed to speak.

President Tessier-Lavigne’s assertion about “thought police” was made during a discussion of the presence of Rupert Murdoch on the Hoover Board of Overseers. That issue is far above my pay grade, but, because I am a Hoover Senior Fellow, it is natural for me to comment. I agree with President Tessier-Levigne and Director Rice in believing that these decisions are best left to the individual units of Stanford University. Central control over these decisions would limit the range of people involved in Stanford activities, and do far more damage than good.

I wish that President Tessier-Levigne would be as supportive of my freedom of speech, and that of Stanford staff, as he is of Rupert Murdoch’s.

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