From the Community | Freedom of speech is a labor issue

Stanford is a company town. More than 5,000 graduate workers work at Stanford, and a sizable majority of us live on campus simply because we cannot afford to live anywhere else on the stipends that the University pays us. Most of Stanford’s 8,000 undergraduates also live on campus. It should come as no surprise, then, that the University’s regulations have a significant impact on our everyday lives. The campus is our workspace and living space, the locus of our communities.

It raises alarm when the University threatens to constrain our civil liberties within our primary community spaces, including, but not limited to, our ability to engage in free speech and protest. The reshaping of policy on how gathering spaces on campus can be used seems to have begun on Feb. 8, when the University provided less than 24 hours notice that they would begin enforcing a rule prohibiting protest in White Plaza after 8 p.m. 

Following the establishment of “The People’s University for Palestine” in late April, University leadership issued six “White Plaza updates,” which detail policies surrounding protests, threatening arrests and “sanctions up to and including suspensions,” that could, in their words, cause delays in graduation.

The latest notice following the attempted occupation of a university building describes the harshest sanctions yet: “immediate suspension and the inability to participate in Commencement based on the president’s authority.” Whereas previous notices warned that those who do not hold Stanford affiliation found in violation of University policy would “be subject to criminal and/or civil liability,” the latest promises “criminal charges” for Stanford students in addition to referrals to the Office of Community Standards (OCS). 

Social media posts and a petition launched by the People’s University at Stanford describe the University making good on its litigious threats last week when Stanford Police detained a Pro-Palestine student for several hours at Santa Clara County Jail. The student was allegedly disparaged, denied access to hygiene facilities and released late at night with nowhere to go. She was disallowed to leave the county under the terms of her release and also banned from campus under the threat of immediate arrest. 

Notices and citations have primarily addressed protesting undergraduates, but they have sent a chill through the broader Stanford community. Notices, in their tone and timing, intimidate students for exercising their right to free speech and create an atmosphere of fear around peaceful demonstration. Unsurprisingly, the recent application of OCS policy to control student speech, protest and movement on campus has shaken trust in the office. 

Escalations in the application of discipline are an abuse of power. The intimidation is all the more stark when the University deploys armed police officers to enforce discipline, and when the University administrators refuse elaboration beyond “White Plaza updates” to undergraduate representatives asking for further details on discipline and the process for discipline. As outlined in our op-ed on real recourse, the University continues to protect bad actors and suppress student voices calling for accountability. It is thus not surprising that the University is more willing to punish protestors rather than engage with them in negotiation, as has been done at peer institutions like Brown and U.C. Berkeley. 

The key issue at play is University policy being unilaterally changed and unfairly applied. For graduate workers, changes in University policy are a constant concern; Stanford can change and implement new policies that can reshape our lives and livelihoods overnight, which is precisely why we need a union contract. In bargaining for a first contract, the Stanford Graduate Workers Union (SGWU) has consistently argued for progressive discipline and the assurance that academic discipline will not be applied for workplace issues. Progressive discipline means that workers cannot be disciplined without just cause, and the severity of discipline must match the severity of the offense. Therefore, graduate workers cannot be fired for minor mistakes, which is a tactic that could otherwise be used to retaliate against graduate workers engaged in protests, union organizing or other protected activities. SGWU and the University recently reached a tentative agreement on these issues (which we refer to together as Discipline and Discharge).

The right to protest and just cause for discipline are fundamental principles that unions seek to protect. Recent arrests and suspensions of graduate workers at institutions across the United States highlight the importance of this right. In response, unions across the country have spoken out on the need to protect the rights to free speech and protest on university campuses. SGWU’s national union affiliate, United Electrical Workers (UE), announced their solidarity with campus protestors and demanded that the right to protest and free speech be respected. The SGWU Bargaining Committee recently joined University Unions United for Free Speech and Protest in a call for universities to “guarantee the right to freedom of speech, assembly and protest on campuses.” Beyond Stanford, members of UAW 4811, representing 48,000 academic workers across the UC campuses, recently authorized their executive board to launch a strike if circumstances justify “in response to UC’s unprecedented acts of intimidation and retaliation directed at our rights as academic employees to free speech, protest, protest and collective action.” For graduate workers, the ability to speak, to assemble and to protest freely within our own community are at the core of labor organization. As of now, thousands of academic workers at UC Santa Cruz, UCLA and UC Davis are actively on strike.

SWGU is fighting for a contract that protects all grad workers. The University has shown that they are willing to change rules without due notice. It has regularly failed to consider the way its policies negatively impact the lives, the work and the well-being of community members. It behooves the University to carefully consider its application of policy, especially when the tacit threat of police involvement depends on administrative decisions. As Professors David Palumbo-Liu and Mikael Wolf have observed, these “bureaucratic responses do not sufficiently recognize the reasons the students are protesting in the first place.” Indeed, Stanford could stand to learn much from the People’s University, where a community has gathered to share in discussion, to learn and to teach and to show the world the true power of organizing and protest.

As graduate workers, we stand in solidarity with our fellow students and colleagues. They must be allowed to engage in this protest and peaceful demonstration without any threat of academic, professional or financial harm. The University will undoubtedly be a better place if their tireless efforts are met with good faith engagement.

Jason Beckman is a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian language and cultures and Sophie Jean Walton is a Ph.D. candidate in biophysics. They are both members of the Stanford Graduate Workers Union Bargaining Committee.

Chloé Brault is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature. 

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