Online Firestorms Raise Student Concerns About Core Standard

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Stanford’s Core Standard, an internal code of conduct defining student behavioral expectations, has remained relatively unchanged for more than a century since its inception.

But recent controversies have put the standards to the test as to whether they can effectively govern campus conduct in an increasingly online world.

In May, Emily Wilder ’20 was fired from The Associated Press following a successful online campaign orchestrated by Republicans at Stanford College for statements made at the university. A month later, Stanford threatened to revoke a law student’s degree following a Fundamental Standard complaint over a politically satirical email he sent. And in September, students cited the foundational norm in calls for the expulsion of Chaze Vinci, a former member of the 2023 class, for racist and violent posts on social media.

Some students and community members are seeing inconsistencies in the way the Standard is applied, not to mention the perceived lack of enforcement in cases of hate speech or online harassment. If Stanford is unable to find a way to consistently apply its foundational standard to online speech in the future, students fear that unacceptable and threatening speech will get unchecked.

“Right now there is a standard for all of these very different types of potential misconduct,” said Nicholas Wallace JD ’21, the student whose degree was temporarily revoked. “As a law student, I can’t help but think about how our current legal codes work. We don’t have one law that applies to all of these different types of misconduct, and there’s a very important reason for that. “

In today’s digital age, community members have many more opportunities for misconduct than in the past. The discourse that takes place off campus creates blurred lines between what is Stanford’s purview and what is not. When online, it’s also easier for students to hide behind pseudonyms and student organizations that obscure individual identities. The character of online attacks is also more vicious – students have repeatedly reported doxxing, and attacks can easily spread beyond the Stanford community.

The advent of social media has “created a whole new set of forums, not limited to the Stanford community, which facilitate behavior inconsistent with the spirit of the Core Standard but largely protected from First Amendment sanctions.” said Tom Wasow, a professor linguist who serves as the academic secretary of the Faculty’s Senate.

Wasow and other faculty members have reason to hope that such a change might be imminent. In 2019, Stanford appointed a committee of 10 members of the Stanford community (C-10) – four faculty members, four students, and two staff members – to review the University’s court processes, the foundational standard and the code of honor.

As the committee nears a final proposal, members said the changes were intended to clarify and position Stanford’s goal of free exchange of ideas as central, and to remove and replace obsolete language in a concern for clarity of expectations.

“The goal we really want to push forward is for this to be a community and for us all to work together,” Jamie Fine, a fourth-year PhD in Modern Thought and Literature. student and member of the C-10, said at a meeting of the Graduate Student Council on June 16. “What we want to do is raise, grow, develop and educate the student-citizens who are going to leave Stanford and take with them is going to help them and help the society in which they go.

But while the changes are still being finalized behind closed doors, preliminary signs indicate that the bulk of the changes will be about the interpretation, rather than the letter, of the core standard. Indeed, the original prosecution asked the committee to consider only whether the standard needed “interpretive refinements.”

Nicholas Wallace JD ’21, the student whose degree has been temporarily revoked, is looking for more. He said he hopes the University will take his situation as a wake-up call that transformative changes need to be made to community standards processes.

The University says the foundational standard has been “applied to a wide variety of situations,” with an unspecified set of penalties ranging from a formal warning to expulsion from Stanford. On its website, Stanford clarifies the types of speech protected by state and federal laws and offers resources for students affected by hate speech.

But when Wallace began receiving “vaguely threatening” emails from the Office of Community Standards informing him that he was the subject of a Core Standards investigation in May, just weeks before obtaining of his graduation and in the midst of final exams, he knew nothing about the potentially life-changing process. he was facing.

“Before that, I had literally never heard of the Core Standard, so when I received the complaint, I initially thought it was a violation of the Honor Code,” Wallace said. “I had no idea what the Core Standard was and what kind of conduct it would allow or prohibit.”

The lack of specificity within the core standard and the minimal on-campus knowledge of the code itself are not the only areas of concern. For some, the problem with the fundamental standard goes hand in hand with the fact that it is a top-down policy.

To prepare his case, Wallace summoned a team of law school colleagues who specialize in First Amendment law and could support him in discussions with the university. For students who don’t have the same connections, however, going through the Core Standard process can be even more terrifying than it is for Wallace, he said.

“I think it’s very likely that an undergraduate student, or someone who isn’t a law student in the same situation would have gone through the whole process without even realizing that the University was violating their rights, ”Wallace said. “There is just a huge imbalance in the type of understanding and the ability to navigate this process which I think could be really unfair for a lot of students.”

However, professors do not seem to agree on the need for significant changes to the Core Standard process. To former Stanford Marshal John Etchemendy, who now sits as the faculty’s Senate representative, the Core Standard effectively articulates “timeless principles,” whose applications have not materially evolved over the years. In the cases of Wilder and Wallace, Etchemendy said the right decisions were clear and the University “ultimately did the right thing.”

“In the first case, my understanding is that the attack was orchestrated by a former student (using an SCR account) against a former student, so neither party was a current student,” Etchemendy said. “In the second, the message strikes me like a transparent case of satire. The fact that it was not immediately dismissed as such simply reflects the fact that the university is a very large organization and not all decisions are well considered.

Other faculty members have a different view of the state of speech on campus. In 2018, the Faculty’s Senate convened a subcommittee chaired by comparative literature professor David Palumbo-Liu to examine ways to improve the campus climate without replacing or altering the foundational standard. Part of the solution, according to Palumbo-Liu, may lie in community soul-searching at Stanford.

Recently, the subcommittee concluded that “no code of conduct will be effective if it does not emanate from the students themselves,” according to Palumbo-Liu. Accordingly, the subcommittee will recommend the University to move forward with a code of conduct formulated by the community and intended to be independent of the fundamental standard.

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