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Stanford faculty follows Harvard and Syracuse, adopts institutional neutrality statement

Stanford’s faculty senate voted to reaffirm student and faculty speech rights and proposed the university remain neutral on political issues. 
Aerial view of Stanford University in Palo Alto

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At the end of May, Stanford’s faculty senate formally  to approve free expression and institutional neutrality statements, making Stanford the  to put into writing its dedication to these principles. 

The new Statement on Freedom of Expression proclaims that the “freedom to explore and present new, unconventional, and even unpopular ideas is essential to the academic mission of the university.”

The language in Stanford’s statement closely mirrors the “” on free expression, which FIREconsiders to be the gold standard for campus free speech policies. That statement, adopted by the University of Chicago in 2015, commits to “free and open inquiry in all matters” and asserts that the university should not “shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.” 

FIRE called on Stanford to protect its students’ right to bring in speakers of their choosing, even controversial ones.

But Stanford faculty didn’t stop there. They also adopted an institutional neutrality statement similar to the University of Chicago’s 1967 “Kalven Report.” The principle of institutional neutrality, as ֭ defines it, means that “colleges and universities should not, as institutions, take positions on social and political issues unless those issues ‘threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry.’”

FIRE strongly endorses both the Chicago Statement and the Kalven Report, and we routinely advocate for their adoption at colleges and universities. We’re thrilled to see Stanford join Harvard and Syracuse, which recently adopted similar statements. Endorsing these statements is a concrete step toward creating a climate where everyone is free to research, learn, and speak without fear.

After letters from ֭, Stanford moves to improve campus free speech

The free expression and institutional neutrality statements approved by Stanford’s faculty on May 30 were drafted over the past year by the , which was formed last February over a “perceived threat to academic freedom — both at Stanford and nationwide.” 

Just a few weeks later, U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kyle Duncan was shouted down at a speaking event hosted by the university chapter of the Federalist Society at Stanford Law School. Rather than removing the protesters so the event could proceed uninterrupted, one dean instead used the disruption as an opportunity to lecture the judge on the “harm” that could be caused if he were allowed to speak at the law school. FIREcalled on Stanford to protect its students’ right to bring in speakers of their choosing, even controversial ones.

We commend Stanford for doing its part to lead American colleges to support expression by fixing problems on its own campus.

In the shadow of this controversy, the faculty senate committee got to work, reportedly  with Stanford’s community to understand what issues contributed to “a breakdown of trust around speech on campus.” According to committee chair Bernadette Meyler, the  were a “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.” 

In addition to adopting the free expression and institutional neutrality statements, the committee recommended continuing its work for two more years to make any clarifications and ensure that Stanford follows through.

What’s the future of free speech at Stanford?

Stanford has a long road to earn back student trust, but it’s off to a good start. 

Immediately after the Judge Duncan shoutdown, then law school dean, now provost, Jenny Martinez explained in a lengthy — and powerful — statement that the heckler’s veto is never acceptable and announced all Stanford Law students would be required to participate in free expression training.

Stanford associate dean for DEI Tirien Steinbach (left) speaks to Judge Kyle Duncan (right)

Stanford Law students shout down 5th Circuit judge: A post-mortem

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FIREat Stanford Law School disrupted a student-organized event featuring a federal appellate judge.

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Now with the creation of the Faculty Senate Ad Hoc Committee on University Speech, and strong statements in favor of free expression and institutional neutrality, Stanford is making real strides to improve its free speech culture.

Looking to the future, Stanford can remove the uncertainty students have about the clarity of the university’s speech policies, which earn an overall “yellow light” rating from ֭, by revising its policies to ensure free expression can thrive on campus. It can also provide education to students about their free speech rights and appropriate protest methods on campus. These reforms would encourage expression among students while discouraging the heckler’s veto and other illiberal activities. 

We commend Stanford for doing its part to lead American colleges to support expression by fixing problems on its own campus. At ֭, we’ll continue to encourage universities to follow its lead by adopting institutional neutrality and defending free expression for all. 


Learn how you can get involved by checking out our “Be an Advocate” page or by sending an email to alumni@thefire.org.

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