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Reading a book on a college campus should not prompt formal administrative intervention. But that’s what’s reportedly happening at Stanford University this week, after a photo of a student reading Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, "Mein Kampf," circulated on campus last Friday.
The Stanford Daily said over the weekend that administrators were working "swiftly" with the students involved to "address" the incident. Two campus rabbis emailed Jewish students saying administrators "are in ongoing conversation with the individuals involved, who are committed to and actively engaged in a process of reckoning and sincere repair."
Stanford was reportedly alerted to the book-reading via its Protected Identity Harm reporting system. Effectively a bias response system, Stanford says PIH reports help the university "address incidents where a community member experiences harm because of who they are and how they show up in the world."
Read the wrong book, report to Restorative Justice
The PIH is "not a judicial or investigative process," the Office of Student Affairs carefully notes in bold, before (properly) carving out exceptions for hate crimes and unlawful discrimination or harassment. "We hope to provide a path to resolution for the affected individuals or communities who need to heal" by having the students participate in one of a "menu" of exercises like "mediated conversations, restorative justice sessions, or Indigenous circle practices," to "help move towards resolution."
Because college students should not have to report to university authorities for merely reading a book — one, by the way, that has been required reading in at least one recent Stanford humanities class and is available to borrow from the university library — FIRE asked Stanford today to provide additional clarity about the way it handles these kinds of "harm" reports on campus.
Stanford defines a PIH Incident as "conduct or an incident that adversely and unfairly targets an individual or group" on the basis of actual or perceived characteristics like race, religion, or marital status. Yet, it acknowledges such conduct does not necessarily violate its harassment or discrimination policies that, quite rightly, already prohibit such unlawful conduct. What purpose does this separate process serve, then?
Stanford’s PIH system can be used, as here, to target and reform views students or administrators dislike, while cloaking it as a purely educational exercise.
The process is the punishment
In our letter to Stanford today, we argue that this practice is coercive.
Administrators with disciplinary authority formally notifying students they’ve been accused of "harm," when they’ve done nothing more than read a book, and asking them to "acknowledge" what they’ve done and "change" their ways through restorative justice-type exercises undoubtedly chills student speech. As we wrote:
The power differential between university administrators and students is significant. When the Office of Student Affairs, which has disciplinary authority, formally contacts a student about a complaint filed about their conduct and asks them to engage in a reconciliation process to address alleged harm, that student is unlikely to interpret the request as genuinely voluntary. Rather, such an invitation strongly suggests a student’s actions were problematic, and they may accordingly self-censor.
This process is not conducive to the atmosphere of free expression Stanford not only commits to, but is required to provide by California’s Leonard Law. The PIH "resolution" process targeting students for intensive institutional intervention will almost certainly chill speech.
The process also raises serious compelled speech and thought reform concerns by pressuring students to take "accountability" and "change" their behavior or views. As we wrote in our letter:
Stanford’s "goal" [in the process] is for students to:
immediately focus on the resolution practices, but also account for:
• Acknowledgement of Harm (and History)
• Accountability and steps taken towards change (to the extent possible)
• Healing/Harm Reduction (if desired)
This presupposes that students must believe or acknowledge their expression as "harmful" and commit not to cause "harm" in the future. In this case, students will understand that certain protected speech is nonetheless off limits, and they will self-censor.
Stanford must reconsider how it handles situations when students complain that another student’s or faculty member’s protected expression has caused them "harm." It can provide support to students with particular sensitivities without punishing others who, by Stanford’s own admission, have not engaged in misconduct.
We submit that Stanford’s process should be to undertake a cursory review of all PIH complaints and first determine whether the conduct alleged constitutes solely protected expression. In such cases, Stanford should not notify or involve the accused student, but may still provide support to the complainant.
Supporting sensitivities & respecting rights. Stanford can do both.
The Stanford situation is reminiscent of one of FIRE’s most high-profile early cases, in which a University of Notre Dame employee was charged with racial harassment for reading a book about defeating — defeating — the Ku Klux Klan. Co-workers complained the mere mention of the KKK was offensive and administrators ordered him to stop reading the book during his breaks. It’s a case we recall often at FIRE, each time with fresh disbelief that a university thought it was OK to ban reading.
Universities cannot wield their institutional authority to force compliance with any particular views or particular students’ sensitivities.
We view the Stanford situation in a similar light. Universities cannot institute Orwellian reporting systems that pressure students to confess, "take accountability," and promise to "change" — all for reading the wrong book.
Students who object to a peer’s reading material are not without recourse. They can ignore it, or employ their own expressive rights to offer personal critiques or even harsh criticism. Stanford would also be wise, when difficult issues arise on campus, to convene discussion groups, town halls, or other expressive events to promote common understanding and tolerance. But universities cannot wield their institutional authority to force compliance with any particular views or particular students’ sensitivities.
We’ve asked Stanford for a prompt, Feb. 1 response.