One of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the heart of the politically progressive Silicon Valley has a free-speech problem.
But this time it’s not generating as many headlines. There are no dramatic videos of left-wing agitators launching Molotov cocktails or scores of yelling students protesting conservative trolls giving speeches on campus.
At Stanford University, conservatives recently took a quieter approach to shutting down their opponents through intimidation and appeals to authority.
But despite the difference in tenor, the Stanford situation is indicative of a broader problem on the right.
Conservatives have made “free speech” part of their brand, and are particularly dramatic about campus-speech controversies. “Critical race theory,” in particular, has positively become an obsession of the right.
Stanford’s conservative crybullies
Two of Stanford’s conservative student organizations showed over the past month that the right could play “crybully” and “hall monitor” just as well as the “snowflakes” on the left they abhor.
Stanford Law School’s Federalist Society — a chapter of the national libertarian and conservative legal group that Republican presidents rely upon to provide lists of “acceptable” Supreme Court justice nominees — recently showed how petty and thin-skinned the right could be when offended by speech.
The group filed an official complaint against Nicholas Wallace, a third-year law student who posted a satirical flyer for a fictitious Federalist Society event called “The Originalist Case for Inciting Insurrection.” The post included photos of GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Texas’ attorney general, Ken Paxton — two staunch supporters of Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the free and fair 2020 election — implying the two would appear at the event.
The fake flyer included such cheeky lines as “Violent insurrection, also known as doing a coup, is a classical system for installing a government.”
It was funny!
And it’s also clearly satirical, unless Stanford’s Federalist Society is arguing it’s plausible the group would publish an advertisement in support of “doing a coup.” In which case, the group’s claim would seem to be that it was falsely impersonated a bit too convincingly.
Stanford’s Federalist Society said in its complaint to the university that Wallace had defamed the group, after which the school followed its own policy of fully investigating any complaint alleging “a possible violation of the Fundamental Standard.”
That launched a two-month process that dragged out so long that Wallace’s graduation was in danger of being delayed, which in turn would have endangered his ability to take the bar exam this summer.
The impasse was finally broken after public pressure, including a critical article in Slate and a letter from the nonpartisan advocacy group the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Stanford subsequently dropped the investigation, saying Wallace’s satirical flyer was indeed “protected speech” and he was cleared to graduate as scheduled in June.
Another victim of Stanford conservatives’ cancel culture wasn’t as lucky.
It was Stanford’s College Republicans group that in May launched a performative-outrage crusade culminating in the reporter Emily Wilder getting fired by the Associated Press. At issue was her past involvement with a college pro-Palestinian advocacy group.
Seemingly oblivious to its own “college snowflake” tendencies, Stanford College Republicans also cited a college op-ed article that Wilder wrote in which she called Ben Shapiro — famous for “destroying” college students — a “little turd.”
But the confrontations at Stanford were just a microcosm of the right’s lack of self-awareness about its free-speech problem.
That’s because for all of conservatives’ protestations about speech being stifled on campus, when given the opportunity many of them will use all available levers of power to shut down their opponents.
The right has its own college-censorship problem
“You can’t name one time when conservatives shut down speech on college campuses!”
Worse than the free-speech tourism is that conservatives are taking their culture-war fights to the legislature, with bills all over the country that would substantially chill free speech in academia. Some have already been signed into law, and some are already having a destructive effect.
Some of these bills use the weasel words “divisive concepts” as an all-purpose cover for “things that must not be said in college.” That would put a swift end to academic explorations of America’s racist past, but also any number of controversial topics.
It’s the height of hypocrisy to posture as steel-spined advocates for open debate while banning “divisive” ideas. What’s there to debate about in the absence of divisiveness?
When you believe you’re in a state of “war” — as many hardcore conservative culture warriors do — all moral consistency goes out the window.
But if you’re among those who still believe that free expression — and the right to offend — is a right to be enjoyed by all political persuasions, don’t count on automatically finding steadfast allies on the right.