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Stanford Faculty Say Anonymous Student Bias Reports Threaten Free Speech

A group of Stanford University professors is pushing to end a system that allows students to anonymously report classmates for exhibiting discrimination or bias, saying it threatens free speech on campus.

The backlash began last month, when a student reading “Mein Kampf,” the autobiographical manifesto of Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler, was reported through the school’s “Protected Identity Harm” system.

The reporting system has been in place since the summer of 2021, but faculty say they were unaware of it until the student newspaper wrote about the incident and the system, spurring a contentious campus debate.

“I was stunned,” said Russell Berman, a professor of comparative literature who said he believes the reporting system could chill free speech on campus and is ripe for abuse. “It reminds me of McCarthyism.”


The Stanford faculty’s effort is part of broader pushback against bias-reporting systems around the country. About half of college campuses have one—more than twice as many as five years ago—according to a 2022 survey by Speech First, a conservative nonprofit.


At Stanford, students can report a “Protected Identity Harm Incident,” which is defined as conduct targeting an individual or group on the basis of characteristics including race or sexual orientation. The system is meant to “build and maintain a better, safer, and more respectful campus community,” according to the school’s website.

The system defaults to anonymous reporting and most students file that way. {snip}


Senior Christian Sanchez, executive vice president of the Associated Students of Stanford University, the student-government group, said the system is necessary and important. Mr. Sanchez, who describes himself as Chicano, said he has bristled in the past when another student has addressed him as “G,” short for gangster.

He has let it roll off his back, he said, but less thick-skinned students should have a path for redress.

“People need to be aware of what they’re saying and who they’re saying it to,” Mr. Sanchez said. {snip}


At the University of California, which includes 10 campuses, the reporting system collected 457 acts of “intolerance or hate” during the 2021-22 school year. Of those, 296 were defined as offensive speech. The UC said those incidents include “gestures, taunts, mockery, unwanted jokes or teasing, and derogatory or disparaging comments of a biased nature.”


After Speech First challenged bias-response systems at the University of Texas, the University of Michigan and the University of Central Florida, all three schools changed or disbanded their systems.

A case filed against Oklahoma State University by Speech First this year lists three students as plaintiffs. The students don’t believe abortion, same-sex marriage or affirmative action should be practiced and believe Black Lives Matter is corrosive to race relations in the country, according to their complaint.

All three said they wouldn’t discuss their views publicly on campus for fear of being reported to the school’s bias-response team for harassing students who disagree with them.