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A Provost’s Pride

On February 4, 2010, Stanford Report published the following article by former provost John Etchemendy.

I attended the counter-demonstration last Friday morning at Hillel, along with hundreds of other faculty, staff and students, when the Westboro Baptist Church brought its unfortunate message of hate to campus.

Through this opinion piece, I want to say how proud I am of the way the campus reacted. I also want to explain why the university agreed to allow people with such an abhorrent message to demonstrate on campus – and why we would do it again.

First the pride. There was a powerful feeling of goodwill and community among those who turned out Friday morning to meet the Westboro demonstrators. We all felt it, and who knows, perhaps the Westboro folks sensed it as well. In an odd way, it turned out to be a wonderful, reaffirming event – precisely the opposite of what our unwanted guests intended.

Unity among Stanford’s diverse population was clearly not what they had hoped to achieve. Instead, their intent – wherever they travel – is to encourage divisiveness and the diminishment of groups ranging from gays to Jews to members of the armed services. It is an odd form of equal opportunity nonsense.

Obviously, they utterly failed at Stanford. For instance, they probably didn’t expect that our Islamic students would send out fliers asking members to show solidarity with Hillel. But such responses come as no surprise to me as a member of the Stanford community for nearly 30 years.

In my experience, people at Stanford value diversity as one of the university’s greatest strengths. We embrace it in our research, teaching and learning. We exemplify it in the way we work and live. We collectively acknowledge a responsibility to set the standard for how diversity can enhance an educational community. In a diverse community, people learn to understand one another and resolve their differences, rather than letting them fester. In a diverse community, scholars and students contribute diverse insights and, in so doing, push the forefront of knowledge further.

But why didn’t we choose to exclude the Westboro demonstrators from campus? Make no mistake: We could have prohibited the demonstrators from coming onto the Stanford campus. This is, after all, a private university, and Stanford’s rights are no different from any other private landholder.

But this is, first and foremost, a university. And a university stands for nothing if not a place where divergent beliefs – true or false, agreeable or distasteful – can be aired.

Still, aren’t there limits to what should be allowed? Before Friday’s event, we received many requests from members of the community to prohibit the Westboro group from demonstrating on campus. Their bizarre collection of beliefs hardly merits serious consideration. So many understandably felt we should draw a line between legitimate points of view that are perhaps false, and views so abhorrent they should not even be allowed expression.

The problem is that once we draw this line, the university takes on a role it should not have. The line between legitimate positions and objectionable beliefs falls in very different places for different people, even quite reasonable people. I regularly receive requests not to allow a person or group to speak on campus – people and groups who are positively mainstream in comparison to the Westboro cult. But once we go down the road of silencing, rather than refuting, those whose beliefs we consider objectionable, we stray from one of the core values that defines the university.

In the end, the demonstration by the Westboro Baptist Church provided us with the opportunity to learn that our values are strong as a university and as a community. We know we stand for mutual respect and freedom of speech. We learned that we are more powerful in the face of hate, not less.

We did the right thing, and I couldn’t be prouder of the Stanford community.