ACTA in the News | Freedom of Expression

After deplatforming judge, Stanford pledges to add free speech to admissions, training

About-face for university that marginalized COVID "focused protection" advocates including Trump advisor. Faculty elsewhere invoke "violence," "terrorism" in response to pro-life activism, Target Pride Month boycott.
JUSTTHENEWS.COM   |  June 8, 2023 by Greg Piper

Stanford University is taking small steps toward changing its reputation as a hostile environment for viewpoint diversity based on faculty campaigns to marginalize heterodox thinkers and law students shutting down of a federal judge with help from a diversity administrator.

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne laid out plans to incorporate “academic freedom and the free expression of ideas” into admissions, student orientation and a subset of staff training in his annual address to the Academic Council last month, though with few supporting details.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which recently targeted Stanford for chilling campus speech through measures such as its since-rescinded “Elimination of Harmful Language” guide, said the president’s pledges are in line with the good-governance group’s “Gold Stanford for Freedom of Expression.”

The academic engine of Silicon Valley, which receives a middling “speech code” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, is tentatively following in the footsteps of Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago from 2006 to 2021, who died May 23.

Zimmer shepherded the so-called Chicago Principles for free expression in 2015 and resisted student and faculty demands to curtail speech at odds with prevailing orthodoxies. All but one UChicago speech-related policy receives FIRE’s highest rating, and this fall it is launching the “Forum for Free Inquiry and Expression”, led by a board member of viewpoint diversity group Heterodox Academy.

Stanford has endured increasing faculty demands to enforce ideological orthodoxy since the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly by cutting institutional ties to the Hoover Institution, home to President Trump’s dissenting COVID adviser Scott Atlas and Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) co-author Jay Bhattacharya.

Stanford is also home to meta-research pioneer John Ioannidis, possibly the first medical expert to publicly question the evidence base for the purported COVID consensus. His research center’s ongoing global tracking of “seroprevalence” has repeatedly undermined alarmist narratives about SARS-CoV-2’s toll.

The Stanford Daily noted the campaign against Atlas, including Stanford itself throwing him under the bus and the Faculty Senate condemning him, in a recent feature on Stanford’s history of political flareups. Atlas has denounced claims that he endorsed violence against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) for her pandemic lockdown policies. 

“To date, no one at any level of the university leadership has expressed their support for me voicing my ideas” on using “focused protection” rather than one-size-fits-all COVID policy, Bhattacharya wrote in a searing essay this year on Stanford’s hostility to scientific debate.

“My efforts to engender discussion were met with silence,” and Ioannidis and Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist Michael Levittt, who backed the GBD, “both report similar treatment,” he wrote.

The university first endured serious scrutiny in March when law students and Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tirien Steinbach — since put on leave — deplatformed conservative federal appeals judge Kyle Duncan during a Federalist Society event.

While Law Dean Jenny Martinez ordered students to undergo a “half-day session” on free speech and “the norms of the legal profession,” Stanford Law said it would hide the identities of disruptive students so they couldn’t suffer professional consequences. Some appellate judges have blacklisted prospective clerks from law schools that tolerate such disruptions.

Tessier-Lavigne’s remarks referred to the Duncan incident as one of “a few occasions this year” in which “some actions were in conflict” with academic freedom and free expression, which he called “the lifeblood of the university.”

Stanford is “working to introduce” these concepts to “prospective undergraduates during the admissions process,” as it did with a provost-led panel discussion during Admit Weekend, the president said. Such an event is not listed on the schedule.

“The Dean of Admissions will also review admissions materials to ensure that concepts of civil discourse and academic freedom are incorporated in them,” Tessier-Lavigne wrote. Vice provosts will incorporate the principles in orientation and the “small group conversations” with freshmen.

Staff who “support student speaker events and other student activities,” and those who develop and lead training, will undergo to-be-developed training on academic freedom and free speech, he said, also floating potential “additional initiatives.”

Stanford did not answer queries to flesh out the president’s remarks, including who is developing or choosing materials, partnering organizations, its timeline and any consequences for staff who refuse training.

“Still a long way to go, but good news,” Bhattacharya tweeted on Tessier-Lavigne’s remarks. “Leadership is sending a clear message to students and faculty to be respectful of speech they disagree with, even while leaving room to critique ideas.”

Activism related to abortion and gender ideology, meanwhile, are sparking faculty pushback in the opposite direction, with disapproved speech sometimes deemed “violence” or “terrorism.”

Professors at New York public colleges tried to shut down or vandalize pro-life demonstrations on campus this spring. Both were captured on video.

The University at Albany’s Renee Overdyke was arrested and charged with “disturbing a lawful assembly, resisting arrest, and obstruction of governmental administration.”

Hunter College’s Shellyne Rodríguez justified attacking the display by calling it “violent” and “triggering” to her students, and was fired after threatening a reporter with a machete for asking about the incident.

Such attacks in previous years got California professors prosecuted and forced to pay their opponent’s legal fees in subsequent litigation.

University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers, who previously joined a cancel campaign against UChicago economist Harald Uhlig for criticizing Black Lives Matter, connected the conservative-led boycott of Target to “terrorism” in a recent MSNBC interview.

If Target removed youth-focused Pride Month merchandise due to genuine fears for its employees’ safety, it amounts to “economic terrorism, literally terrorism,” Wolfers said, later telling George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, who noted the exchange, he didn’t mean boycotts themselves constitute terrorism.

Similar to Stanford’s onetime language guide, the University of Colorado Boulder hosts an “LGBTQ+ Resources” guide that says ignoring or “disrespect[ing] someone’s pronouns is not only an act of oppression but can also be considered an act of violence.”

The guide, posted by its student affairs’ Pride Office, added a disclaimer between May 15 and May 16 after drawing unwanted attention online: “This information was created by students, for students. The University supports an inclusive environment and students’ freedom of expression and speech.”

This post appeared on on June 4, 2023.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More