Stanford’s faculty senate condemns a colleague for exercising free (but misguided) speech

January 6, 2021 • 9:15 am

Once again we have a professor who said stupid stuff—not hateful this time, but medically wonky and potentially dangerous—and was officially condemned by his University.

Hot off the press from The Stanford News (click on screenshot): Scott Atlas, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution—and formerly a professor and chief of neuroradiology at the Stanford University Medical Center—became a coronavirus advisor in the Trump administration, and proceeded to make a number of pronouncements about the pandemic that contravened medical wisdom.  Last Thursday he was condemned in a Stanford faculty resolution, with 85% of the faculty voting for that resolution.

So here we have the usual conflict between freedom of speech and the “harm” imputed to that speech. And once again, while condemning the speaker, I defend Atlas’s right to say what he wants without institutional condemnation.

From the report:

A resolution, introduced by members of the Faculty Senate Steering Committee and approved by 85 percent of the senate membership, specified six actions that Atlas has taken that “promote a view of COVID-19 that contradicts medical science.”

Among the actions cited are: discouraging the use of masks and other protective measures, misrepresenting knowledge and opinion regarding the management of pandemics, endangering citizens and public officials, showing disdain for established medical knowledge and damaging Stanford’s reputation and academic standing. The resolution states that Atlas’ behavior is “anathema to our community, our values and our belief that we should use knowledge for good.”

The resolution singles out for criticism Atlas’ recent Twitter call to the people of Michigan to “rise up” against new public health measures introduced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to curb disease spread.

“As elected representatives of the Stanford faculty, we strongly condemn his behavior,” the resolution states. “It violates the core values of our faculty and the expectations under the Stanford Code of Conduct, which states that we all ‘are responsible for sustaining the high ethical standards of this institution.’”

In approving the resolution, members of the senate called on university leadership to “forcefully disavow Atlas’ actions as objectionable on the basis of the university’s core values and at odds with our own policies and guidelines concerning COVID-19 and campus life.”

The indictment goes beyond simply damning Atlas for misrepresenting the scientific consensus in a potentially harmful way (presumably if he misrepresented continental drift there would have been no faculty resolution), but criticizes him for giving the imprimatur of Stanford and the Hoover Institution to his words. This is a common way to criticize speech: by saying that the speaker is an authority figure and puts the weight of his/her position behind the words.

In discussion, David Spiegel, the Jack, Samuel and Lulu Willson Professor in Medicine, who has been among Atlas’ most vocal critics, reiterated his belief that the university has an obligation to act because Atlas has inappropriately used his position at the Hoover Institution to give credibility to his COVID-19 positions.

“What Atlas has done is an embarrassment to the university,” Spiegel said. “He is using his real affiliation with Hoover to provide credibility in issues he has no professional expertise to discuss in a professional way.”

Yes, of course what Atlas said was dumb, and would have potentially harmful effects on those who followed his public statements. (But be mindful that there have been dissenters from the received wisdom about how to control the pandemic. Sweden, for instance, initially (and fruitlessly) sought to stem the pandemic through herd immunity—one of Atlas’s recommendations.)

But stupid pronouncements, even when made as an official of the Trump administration (and a fellow on leave from Hoover) constitute free speech. Atlas’s intent, or so he said in his response to the resolution, was neither intended to cause harm (the guy was just clueless), nor, if harmful, did it cause immediate harm. Ergo it’s free speech under the First Amendment.

And it doesn’t violate freedom of speech to make a pronouncement as an individual affiliated with Stanford. As far as I know, if I tweeted, as Professor Jerry Coyne, “Face masks are useless for preventing spread of the virus,” I would not be violating the First Amendment simply because I mentioned my position.  I might be violating a company’s regulations, or Stanford’s regulations (though I don’t know if that’s the case), but Stanford, although a private university, should not have rules that prevent free speech among its faculty.

Indeed, faculty who voted against Atlas recognized the tension between free speech and “harmful speech”, but resolved it in favor of preventing harm. It’s a case of “we favor free speech BUT. . . ”

In his comments on the issue, [Stanford] President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said he was “deeply troubled by the views by Dr. Atlas, including his call to ‘rise up’ in Michigan.” Tessier-Lavigne noted that Atlas later clarified his statements, but he said that the tweet “was widely interpreted as an undermining of local health authorities, and even a call to violence.”

Tessier-Lavigne reiterated Stanford’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom. Atlas, he asserted, remains free to express his opinions.

“But we also believe that inflammatory remarks of the kind at issue here by someone with the prominence and influence of Dr. Atlas have no place in the context of the current global health emergency,” he said. “We’re therefore compelled to distance the university from Dr. Atlas’s views in the strongest possible terms.”

No, President Tessier-Lavigne, Atlas’s misguided statements were NOT a “call to violence”, at least of the immediate and predictable kind that does violate the First Amendment. Atlas even made that clear. How a statement is interpreted by people is not important; what’s important, if you’re seeking to damn someone for free speech, is what they intended to do. 

The University didn’t have to pass a resolution “distancing itself” from Atlas, and that wouldn’t have happened at the University of Chicago. For passing such resolutions chills speech, and, as our Kalven report emphasizes, says these wise words:

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

In this case the University (Stanford) is the critic, making public pronouncements so it looks good. And by so doing, it chills the speech of those faculty who would advance renegade views. Some of the faculty even recognized this:

The discussion of Atlas’ actions raised issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech, as it has in the past. Among those expressing concern about the resolution’s effect on freedom of speech and academic freedom was John Etchemendy, former provost, the Patrick Suppes Family Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Denning Family Co-Director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

Etchemendy said that the resolution could be interpreted as suggesting Stanford faculty members have less freedom of speech rights than members of society in general.

But Etchemendy said, “As far as the statements that have been made by Atlas, as a private citizen he has the right to make those statements. I am troubled by the idea that a person who has those rights to speak and to assert certain things – however outrageous – have fewer rights to speak, given that they are Stanford faculty. I find that to be contrary to what is, I think, the highest value of the university, which is the value and promotion of free speech and open dialogue.”

I agree wholly with Etchemendy. But clearly most faculty, even if they do favor free speech and academic freedom, favor the “free speech BUT. . .” variety. One more quote:

Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, said she believes the resolution has reminded the university of the importance of leading with its values.

“In our messaging, we have sometimes been more focused on the legal issues rather than the value issues,” she said. “This brings the value issues front and center. We have been pretty good at pointing to the value of freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry, which I believe are central. But there are other values at stake. As a university, we have a commitment to push back against the undermining of expertise and knowledge. That is one of the great threats to our democracy at the moment.”

In my view (others may differ), those “other values”, which constitute misinformation—even potentially harmful misinformation—do not outweigh the great value of freedom of speech, especially at a university. Stanford should have kept its collective mouth shut.

Now you might be asking, “Well, what’s the difference between what Atlas said and false advertising, which DOES violate the First Amendment?”  After all, Atlas’s statement, like false advertising of drugs, could be harmful to people’s health.

As far as I know, commercial advertising has a bit less leeway than other forms of speech, and what has been prohibited by the courts is deceptive commercial advertising, when a firm makes claims it knows to be wrong. That is not the case for Atlas, who believed what he said. But even if he knew what he said was wrong, he should be damned and excoriated for it by counterspeech, not subject to official university condemnation. Universities, after all, should be kept as unsullied as possible by the chilling of speech, for they are places where ideas should be freely expressed and debated.

Atlas is a moron, but even morons get to say dumb things under the First Amendment.

I was going to put a poll here, “Do you agree that Stanford should have had a vote on condemning Atlas?” But I’d rather hear what you have to say in the comments, so speak up.

33 thoughts on “Stanford’s faculty senate condemns a colleague for exercising free (but misguided) speech

  1. The faculty also has freedom of speech and condemnation of the guy’s harmful pronouncements is valid and appropriate.He was not removed from any position.

    1. What if he condemned the idea of evolution? That could be considered harmful as well. At any rate, the faculty have INDIVIDUAL freedom of speech, as they do at my school, but it’s different when the University takes an official position. The faculty resolution presumably is not signed by those faculty who agree, nor are those who disagree named, so it constitutes an official university position, not a position by a number of faculty who agree, with many others who don’t.

      1. Personally I see a difference between taking a position on a matter that affects public health (like infectious disease-denial or vaccines) and a matter that doesn’t (like evolution).

      2. Although it’s counterfactual to deny evolution, the potential for harm, especially in the short term is very limited. Spouting counterfactual rubbish about a pandemic, during that pandemic is another matter – thousands are dying every day so the potential for harm is very real.

        They aren’t stopping him from saying it, they’re countering his nonsense, which is potentially lethal, with facts. As an institution that employs this idiot, I’m tempted to say the University has a responsibility to speak up to dissociate his views from the institution. Should medical schools say nothing if their immunologists spew anti-vax nonsense on TV? Or while their infectious disease experts say AIDS is caused by condom use, not by HIV? Oh, and the only way to cure it is uprotected sex with a virgin? Not in my opinion.

        Apart from the public interest angle the University should be able to protect its own reputation by distancing from such claims. I’m a free speech absolutist, but in my view this isn’t a free speech issue – he is free to speak and the University is free to say he’s an idiot and we officially disagree with him.

      3. I agree with several replies to this. It seems to me, though not quite an emergency, to be pretty damn close to that; pretty close to the famous false shouting FIRE! in a crowded theatre. The Mass Murderer should himself be convicted of exactly that, along with plenty more. The stricture of IMMANENT harm is interpreted by many too tightly, IMHO. Hard to judge on something like climate change, but Covid is killing an average of reported 2500 people, in reality probably about 3500, every day in the good ole USA.

    2. Yes, I agree. Atlas spoke, then the faculty spoke back. No major issue – “more speech” is exactly how we’re supposed to respond to bad speech. If Stanford makes a rule against such speech, that would be very problematic, but as far as I can tell, this ‘resolution to condemn…’ is simply a statement, not an actionable employment recommendation.

      Re: PCC’s example of evolution, this is exactly how Lehigh treats Behe: they let him do his creationist thing, but the University and the faculty also put out some official statements saying they disavow his support for ID. I see nothing wrong with that treatment…and it’s almost directly analogous to Stanford and Atlas, so based on my very limited understanding of what the reslution is calling for (condemnation, but not firing), I see nothing wrong with this too.

  2. Etchemendy is a distinguished logician, so one may well expect a higher standard of judgment from him than from many others! 😉

    I think Stanford would have been quite correct to make a statement which disputed Atlas’ *views*, stressing that the weight of expertise the university embodies point in the opposite direction from what Atlas says in almost every single respect. Condemning *him*, however, is a category error.

    1. I don’t know about Etchemendy, but I’ve often told my students they will really get better at being logical, creating your and evaluating others’ arguments, by taking good courses in classical or newer pure mathematics with many theorems and proofs, or often in law, than learning the basics of formal logic (especially philosophical logic so-called). But even mathematical logic (not supposed to be much different), which I might very well be teaching those students at the time, is often anemic compared to algebra, topology, geometry and analysis. You learn logic formally to get a grip e.g. on what Godel really accomplished, but you don’t get that much practice in being forced to do a lot of creation of arguments. Especially in philosophy departments (take a look at popular texts like The Logic Book and realize that few courses get past the first half) and it seems they are teaching something more like Chartered Logic Accounting.

  3. I was going to say more or less what BobTerrace said. Had the faculty voted on sanctions, it would have been a different matter.

  4. It seems to me that Stanford would be justified in rebuking Atlas merely for bringing disrepute on the institution, which he clearly did. And it shouldn’t be necessary to point out that the Stanford faculty isn’t bound by the First Amendment.

  5. I don’t entirely agree. Certainly it’s hyperbole to call his statements “violence.” But his was not just expressing an opinion. His statements, from a big national podium, actually could (and probably did) hurt people. This moves it in a significant way beyond the arena of simple free speech arguments.

    1. I agree. I often see people citing an “expert’s” position “a Stanford researcher” to give weight to his/her position.

      So in this case anti-maskers probably would cite Stanford in giving credibility to Atlas’s arguments.

    2. I define violence as causing physical harm. His statements almost certainly were a large part of the cause of many deaths. Causing death seems like a kind of physical harm to me, even more than maybe a bloody nose, don’t you think?

  6. … (presumably if he misrepresented continental drift there would have been no faculty resolution) …

    “continental drift” — Showin’ your age with that one, boss; I think all the cool kids today call that “plate tectonics.” 🙂

    1. I could be wrong, but I gather that continental drift is what is observed, and plate tectonics the mechanism causing that drift. Oh, to be cool like cool kids. I feel so irrelevant. I need a safe space. 😉

      I look forward to Stanford and/or its faculty senate making a declaration regarding whether sex (and molecules for that matter – say DNA) is “a social construct.” Dare a biological scientist there publicly hold forth on the evidence for and efficacy of bimodality?

      1. You’d need to live a long time to literally observe continental drift, eh? Joking,

        What’s literally observed is manifold and subtle to an amateur like me–but strips of reversing magnetized iron on the Atlantic ocean bottom, rocks that match between eastern South America and western Africa, etc,..And still some thermodynamic deductions about the inner earth to get a mechanism is needed before being all that certain.

  7. If Atlas presented himself as speaking as a representative of Stanford, then I think that Stanford as an institution has every right to discipline him. If he spoke as a private individual then he should be free to speak, *but* his colleagues should also be free to say “this is not us”.

  8. I’m not seeing this as a First Amendment free speech issue. The Stanford faculty senate’s condemnation of Atlas may violate the principles of academic freedom (particularly as annunciated by the University of Chicago regarding the eschewal of a university’s taking official positions on political issues), but the resolution does not circumscribe Atlas from speaking out as an individual.

    Certainly if members of Stanford’s faculty senate had signed such a condemnation of Atlas as individuals, rather than collectively in their capacity as members of the faculty senate, their statement itself would have been protected by their own free speech rights.

  9. Atlas stepped over the line when he called for people to “rise up” against Michigan Governor Whitmer’s efforts to keep residents safe. His later clarification doesn’t help much. This is a common ploy with Trump’s followers. They know, and count on, everyone paying more attention to the original statement and not the apology or explanation. His statement was especially bad considering the death threats Whitmer has received. As I see it, Stanford rightfully and justifiably did all they could to distance themselves from the despicable Atlas. There was no cancelling or freedom of speech suppression, just a group slamming of his ideas and an attempt to protect public health.

  10. Quite so. It’s a classic example of the “Motte and Bailey Logical Fallacy” — and dishonest form of advocacy. Per Wikipedia:

    The motte-and-bailey fallacy (named after the motte-and-bailey castle) is a form of argument and an informal fallacy where an arguer conflates two positions which share similarities, one modest and easy to defend (the “motte”) and one much more controversial (the “bailey”). The arguer advances the controversial position, but when challenged, they insist that they are only advancing the more modest position. Upon retreating to the motte, the arguer can claim that the bailey has not been refuted (because the critic refused to attack the motte) or that the critic is unreasonable (by equating an attack on the bailey with an attack on the motte).

  11. Is it the ‘condems’ bit that is the issue?
    Should Stanford of released a statment saying and I paraphrase ‘he’s talking bollocks and doesn’t represent this institution in this’?
    Or would that be interferring with accademic freedom?

  12. Many years ago, a Seattle paper ran a very dopey, sensationalistic series about the dangers of molecular genetics—my favorite part included a reference to “ultraviolent rays””—entitled “Who Will Play God”. I sent a letter to the paper thanking them for their exciting series, and affirming that the assignment of playing God would be taken on by me from here on. I signed it: GOD, Genetics Department, University of Washington.

    To my surprise and delight, the paper made my letter into a front page story (on a weekend, when news is slow). Our chairman later did take me aside and gently suggested that I not use University letterhead for future pranks. The University as a whole neglected to take an official position on the matter, back then in less agitated times. Nowadays, there might be a tornado—perhaps like the mini-tornado after I asked that the departmental directory include my personal pronouns in Russian.

    1. Good for you! Playing God would be fun; being God, not much fun at all, what with the endless email requests and those who insist on a selfie with you.

  13. “That is not the case for Atlas, who believed what he said.”

    I believe you believe he believed what he said.
    I don’t believe he believed what he said. I believe he is a liar, not an idiot. I suspect his lying here occurred because he is a money and power grubbing asshole. He liked that money and some power he got on Fox. But my god, suddenly the Mass Murderer needed a scientific adviser who gave him phoney excuses for his evil behaviour re Covid. Then the real big money and power started for Atlas.

    But really it’s the dreadful harm they both did that probably justifies sanction from his university; that was causing sufficiently immediate harm, many deaths.

  14. Would I be correct in saying that by PCC(E)’s argument, Trump’s words to his supporters yesterday deserve no institutional condemnation/actions, as he has freedom of speech? After all, it’s not important how his speech is *interpreted* by people…

    1. He has the right to say these things. He also has the right to own a steak knife. That doesn’t give him the right to use either of these rights in a manner that will knowingly cause harm to other people.

  15. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that making apparently healthy people wear masks prevents COVID-19 transmission in real-world situations.

    The first, and to my knowledge only, randomized controlled study of public mask wearing, with 6000 participants, found no statistically significant difference in infection between the group that wore masks and the group that didn’t.

    Comparisons between US states that have mask mandates and those that don’t, and between counties in the same state, have shown no statistically significant difference. You can look at the case graphs US states and European nations that implemented a mask mandates and you won’t be able to tell when they were implemented because there are no apparent changes in the curves.

    The rationale for wearing a mask is that if you have the disease it will protect others. (Cloth masks seem to have little efficacy in protecting the person wearing them.) But sick people shouldn’t be out at all. The argument for apparently healthy people wearing masks (and for lockdowns, etc.) is preventing asymptomatic transmission. But there’s no evidence that asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 is significant.

    A metaanalysis of 54 studies of COVID-19 transmission within households (where you’d expect transmission to be most certain) found no statistically significant evidence of asymptomatic transmission. And if asymptomatic carriers aren’t spreading it in their own homes, they’re not going to be spreading walking around outside.

    A study of 1,174 close contacts of asymptomatic carriers found zero cases of transmission.

    Now, they say you can find a study to show anything and maybe you can. So I ask, where are the studies showing that asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 is anything but insignificant? Where are the studies showing that mask mandates correlate with significant reductions in COVID-19 transmission in the real world? (I’m not talking about blowing air through a mask in a laboratory.) Because if asymptomatic transmission is not a thing, and if mask mandates don’t empirically reduce transmission, then what is the point?

    The best and only evidence I’ve seen comes from looking at different diseases like the flu, but I haven’t seen any large studies there (usually N < 300), and speculative extrapolation based on a different kind of virus is rather weak.

    1. Also, those studies with the flu were in hospital settings dealing with heavily symptomatic patients and provide no evidence for asymptomatic spread or protection.

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