Stanford’s Safe Space

Joshua Bridges

“Welcome to the new normal.” That’s what Ryan T. Anderson, a Heritage Foundation fellow, tweeted when Stanford University refused to fund and provide security for his student-sponsored speaking engagement next month. Anderson’s co-authored book, What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense, has made him persona non grata among LGBTQ activists across the country. When LGBTQ students complained that Anderson’s presence on campus would violate their “safe space,” the university took action to keep him from coming.  It looked as if the administration had closed any debate on the issue of same-sex marriage.

But then Stanford unexpectedly reversed its position.  Here’s what transpired.

On February 26, Stanford’s Graduate Student Council (GSC) approved a request from the Stanford Anscombe Society (SAS), named after the late British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, for $600 in funding by a vote of 8 to 4 with one abstention. According to its website, the SAS “promotes discussion regarding the roles of the family, marriage, and sexual integrity in the lives of Stanford students both now and after graduation.” It defines marriage as “a union, until death, between one man and one woman.”

The $600 awarded to the SAS was intended to help cover the expenses of its “Communicating Values” conference, a forum to “allow students to network with other individuals who are willing to engage in intellectual and civil discourse about the issues of marriage, family, and sexual integrity.” Scheduled speakers for the April 5th event included prominent same-sex marriage opponents Robert Oscar Lopez, an English professor at California State University-Northridge, and Ryan Anderson.

Stanford’s LGBTQ community was unhappy with the funding. On March 2, student activist Brianne Huntsman created a Facebook page in protest. Huntsman called the planned SAS conference an “anti-LGBT event” and urged Stanford students to lobby the GSC to revoke its grant to the Anscombe Society.

Under heavy pressure, at its next meeting on March 5th, the GSC debated revoking the grant. During the debate, SAS co-president Judith Romea emphasized that, far from having an anti-gay agenda, the organization’s aim in holding the conference was to “educate attendees on public policy issues surrounding marriage and family” and “enable people who hold these beliefs to articulate respectfully the values they hold.” Campus LGBTQ leaders repeated their concern that bringing speakers like Anderson and Lopez to the Stanford campus would make them feel unsafe. Huntsman said the following: “A lot of students who are queer come to Stanford because it’s one of the most LGBT-friendly places in the world… Stanford is supposed to be a safe space for us.”

GSC member Eduardo Gonzalez-Maldonado was recorded in the meeting’s minutes as vehemently agreeing:

[The SAS conference] does not promote safe space on campus…We will not fund any event which makes anyone feel unwelcome and uncomfortable.

Gonzalez-Maldonado added that the SAS members were bigoted:

This event is not only discriminatory, but badly organized for the purpose it’s serving. It’s supposedly serving to teach people on campus that people who hold anti-marriage-equality views can hold these views and be OK…

The implication is that if you invite people such as Anderson and Lopez to speak on your behalf, you are not “OK.”

After two hours of debate, the GSC voted 10 to 2 with two abstentions to revoke its grant to SAS for the Communicating Values conference. As if this public censure was not enough, the next day, the appropriations committee in Stanford’s Undergraduate Senate, from which SAS had requested $5,000 in funding for the conference, rejected SAS’s application by a vote of 4 to 1 with one abstention.

The SAS may have expected some resistance from student-run funding bodies. But it surely did not expect the Stanford administration to do what it did next. The administration refused to provide security for the event, and required the SAS to pay $5,600 to cover its own safety measures, including paying for the presence of four police officers. The message was clear: those who sought to promote traditional marriage would receive no support from the university and deserved no protection from those who might disrupt them.  

In a March 19 press release, Romea called the administration’s move “a tax on free speech,” adding that the SAS was “disappointed to see [Stanford] set the precedent of taxing speech they don’t like.”  SAS also submitted a letter to Stanford Provost John W. Etchemendy in protest of the administration’s draconian actions. 

The situation began to receive major national attention from right-leaning news outlets, including National Review and The American Conservative. Under the eye of the conservative media the university had a sudden change of heart. Nanci Howe, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Activities and Leadership, emailed SAS leaders that the school had suddenly “found” funds for the security. However, SAS still won’t be receiving any funding from the GSC or the ASSU.

Other bloggers have pointed this out, but it’s worth repeating: this is the logical outcome of the safe space movement, which aims to provide particular student identity groups with spaces where they are not just tolerated but also supported and affirmed. Only now, where once “safe spaces” were secluded campus locations to which students of a particular demographic—racial minorities, women, gays and lesbians—could retreat, the “safe space” has enveloped the entire project of educating. Not one patch of grass, conversation, conference, assignment, or lecture will remain unaffected at institutions that have no will to tame it. This is a grave new threat to free speech on American campuses.

It is also noteworthy that major universities such as Stanford feel insulated from the greatest debate of our time, soon raging in every corner of America: the debate over marriage. Do universities really have no part to play in being a forum for this debate? It appears that the American colleges and universities would rather be instruments for political activism. This is a shame. Our final lesson is much more hopeful: we should remember that public pressure does have (at least some) influence over what happens at American universities. When Americans are educated on a matter, good things happen. 



Image: Caution Tape by Eugene Zemlyanskiy / CC BY 2.0

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