What we have here is one or two Stanford students being reported to the University administration after a photo was circulated online of one student reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. There are two reports of the incident, the first from FIRE and the second from the student newspaper The Stanford Daily. They’re in order below, and you can read them by clicking on the headlines.
First, the report was made to the Stanford bias reporting site designed to collect reports of incidents that might harm “protected groups”:
The Protected Identity Harm Reporting process is the University’s process to address incidents where a community member experiences harm because of who they are and how they show up in the world.
Specifically, a PIH incident is conduct or an incident that adversely and unfairly targets an individual or group on the basis of one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics: race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, veteran status, marital status or any other characteristic protected by applicable law.
The Protected Identity Harm (PIH) Reporting process, intakes information via a reporting mechanism to 1) help students who have been affected by these incidents and 2) collect data. It is not a judicial or investigative process* though we do hope to provide a path to resolution for the affected individuals or communities who need to heal.
But it is certainly an investigative process, and a quasi-judicial one as well. (In this case the protected group was Jewish people.) And the students involved in the photo have been called to account by the administration and are certainly preparing their formal apology—if they want to stay at Stanford.
From FIRE (my bolding):
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.”
Now it’s not clear how many individuals were responsible for this incident, or who reported it. Presumably the “guilty party” was the person reading the book, and perhaps an accomplice who photographed that, though it’s not clear that the photo wasn’t taken surreptitiously. The “students involved” implies more than one, but this could include the student who reported the incident. I can’t find the photograph.
The Stanford Daily adds this, implying that two students collaborated on this (my bolding again):
The photo of the student reading the book was posted to another student’s Snapchat story Friday evening, according to a screenshot of the image obtained by The Daily.
University spokesperson Dee Mostofi confirmed that the Office of Student Affairs and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORL) became aware of this incident on Saturday. Mostofi added that the two offices, along with Stanford’s Hillel chapter, are working with the leaders of the residence that the students belong to address the social media post and its impact on the community.
“Swift action was taken by the leadership in the residential community where both the individuals who posted and the one pictured are members,” Kirschner and Hahn Tapper wrote. Student Affairs and ORL are actively working with students involved to address the issue and mend relationships in the community.
The FIRE article notes that the students have already been notified that they’re in trouble, and are “actively involved in reckoning and sincere repair.” Isn’t that punitive and judicial?
FIRE adds this:
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.
FIRE also notes that this picture doesn’t seem to violate the freedom of expression that Stanford promises to its students. Because there is an investigation and presumably the student who read the book and the picture taker are being investigated, FIRE wrote a letter to the President of Stanford,
Part of FIRE’s letter, sent to President Marc Tessier-Lavigne on January 25:
Reading a book on a college campus should not prompt formal administrative intervention.
Despite Stanford’s insistence that its PIH Reporting process “is not a judicial or investigative process” and participation in a resolution is voluntary, it is unacceptably punitive and chills expressive activity. Being “invited” by administrators with institutional disciplinary authority to engage in a formal reconciliation process to atone for reading a book—one that has been previously assigned as required reading for a Stanford class6 and is available to check out at Stanford’s library —is not conducive to the campus free speech culture. Stanford deems central to the university’s functions. Nor is it consistent with California’s “Leonard Law,” which requires Stanford to provide free expression.
Despite these obligations, Stanford chills student speech when the response to a PIH report involves notifying an accused student that they may have caused “harm” by merely exercising their rights.The PIH system’s “resolution” mechanisms also raise compelled speech and thought reform concerns. Stanford “invites” accused students to meet with their accuser to engage in, for
example, “restorative justice, [a] healing circle, [or] mediation to help move towards resolution.” Stanford’s “goal” is for students to:[I]mmediately focus on the resolution practices, but also account
• Acknowledgement of Harm (and History)
• Accountability and steps taken towards change (to the
• Healing/Harm Reduction (if desired)
This presupposes that students must 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.
Here’s what FIRE suggested:
If Stanford wants to provide both this PIH reporting system and promote a culture of free expression, it should undertake a cursory review of PIH complaints and first determine whether the conduct alleged constitutes protected expression. In such cases, Stanford can offer support to the complainant without notifying or involving the accused student.
And they asked for a response from Stanford by February 1.
Now it’s entirely possible that this was designed as an anti-Semitic stunt to scare Jews. In that case, it’s reprehensible but still not a violation of free speech. (Needless to say, if the student really was reading the book out of interest, or had been assigned it, and it wasn’t a scare tactic, Stanford should stay well away from the reader and photographer.) But in either case FIRE is right: the students who read the book, and perhaps the one who took and posted the photo, were exercising their rights of free speech, which Stanford supposedly guarantees. Getting them involved in a bias reporting investigation solves nothing, but serves only to chill speech in general. (Remember, if speech is protected, offensive speech must be protected, and that includes “hate speech”.)
As a (secular) Jew, I’m very sensitive to the rise of anti-Semitism on American campuses and among the American Left. It worries me, as does the seeming embrace of “anti-Zionism” on campus. And if Jewish students say they were harmed by seeing this photo, well, it’s perfectly fine for Stanford to offer them counseling and tons of support. I would hope, though, that Jewish students would develop a hide thick enough to withstand a photograph like this without being traumatized. (I realize that this may be part of a campus pattern, which would make it extra bothersome.)
But Stanford should leave the students involved in the incident alone (there were probably two, since they live in the same dorm). Otherwise the “perps” are being not only investigated, but punished, for of course a note from the administration that you’re being investigated, followed by a process of “restoration” are by chilling your speech, forms of punishment. You’re being punished for saying what is legal.
h/t: Ginger K.