From the Community | When misinformation is free speech

In their coverage of Thursday’s Faculty Senate debate around the presence of Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Mercer on the Hoover Institution’s Board of Overseers, The Stanford Daily and the Stanford Report offered a number of quotations from President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Hoover Director Condoleezza Rice that form the basis of this essay.

Murdoch had been criticized for facilitating the spread of dangerous misinformation about the 2020 Presidential election. He had admitted as much under sworn deposition during the defamation lawsuit brought against Murdoch’s Fox News by Dominion Voting Machines. Mercer was criticized because her own media empire has promoted the dangerous “Great Replacement Theory,” a virulently antisemitic, white supremacist doctrine that holds that white people are being “replaced” by Jewish people and other racial groups. This theory has been evoked by various mass murderers in the manifestos. A resolution was presented that “the association of Rebekah Mercer and Rupert Murdoch in all positions of responsibility or honor at Stanford University be terminated due to their promulgation of dangerous, racist, and antisemitic disinformation.”

Although I have strong objections to Mercer, I have chosen to focus on Murdoch because his case allows us to adjudicate whether Stanford does or does not condone misinformation. Based on the test case presented yesterday, apparently it does, via this sleight of hand —misinformation is welcomed at Stanford if it is framed as simply one viewpoint amongst many and protected as free speech. The repetition of exact phrases and terms leads one to believe that Tessier-Lavigne and Rice are reading from the same script:

President Marc Tessier-Lavigne urged the senate to vote against the resolution, calling it “chilling” and an imposition of “institutional orthodoxy” during the Faculty Senate meeting. (Daily)

“The Senate just reaffirmed its commitment to [academic freedom],” Tessier-Lavigne said, referencing a previous faculty senate meeting. “For the senate to adopt this resolution would be to set itself up as a thought police.” (Daily)

Tessier-Lavigne spoke against the motion, which he said in effect calls for the Senate to act as an institutional body to censor two overseers. “Free expression of ideas is the lifeblood of the University and it’s essential to our research and teaching missions,” he said. (SR)

“The senate’s foundational statement of academic freedom holds that expression of the widest range of viewpoints should be encouraged free from institutional orthodoxy and from internal and or external coercion,” [Hoover Director Condoleezza] Rice said. (Daily)

“The University has been very clear that we are going to uphold not just academic freedom, but standards of freedom of speech,” Rice added. “And I would say that freedom of the press goes along with that.” (SR)

The problem is, even if we frame this as a free speech issue, we find that free speech is not completely free. In Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the Supreme Court established that speech advocating illegal conduct is protected under the First Amendment unless the speech is likely to incite “imminent lawless action.” Fox’s repeated assertions that the election was “stolen” did in fact incite people to besiege the Capitol, violently attack those attempting to protect members of Congress and call for the murder of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and the lynching of Vice President Mike Pence.

Ben Smith, writing in The New York Times, reminds us of how Fox’s campaign of misinformation did in fact incite “imminent lawless action” — “High profile Fox voices, with occasional exceptions, not only fed the baseless belief that the election had been stolen, but they helped frame Jan. 6 as a decisive day of reckoning, when their audience’s dreams of overturning the election could be realized.”

It is remarkable to me how quickly, easily and absolutely Tessier-Lavigne and Rice erase the fact that the “speech” they are so passionately attached to protecting is speech that incited an attack against the democratic process and an assault on the peaceful transfer of power, one of the signal points of pride our country celebrates. Fox’s lies were relentlessly blasted out before, during and after the Insurrection, but as the comments quoted above indicate, for Tessier-Lavigne and Rice, Murdoch’s case is simply one of a point of view that has to be protected like any other one. When law professor Deborah Hensler expressed concern that Tessier-Lavigne’s statement seemed to indicate “that seemingly anyone, no matter their views, should rightfully be considered a candidate for a university institutional leadership appointment, in the interest of assuring freedom of expression,” Director Rice told her, “You have been a problem this entire time.” 

Now what sort of “speech” is so precious that Tessier-Lavigne and Rice wish to protect Murdoch’s “free speech” right to broadcast them? Here are some examples of the kind of speech that Murdoch admitted he could have stopped, but did not:

[Lou] Dobbs: “How important do you believe are the concerns being expressed in a number of states about the ability of these [Dominion Voting Systems] machines not to be hacked?”

[Rudy] Giuliani: “The machines can be hacked. There’s no question about that. Their machines can be hacked. But it’s far worse than that, Lou. Dominion is a company that is owned by another company called Smartmatic… It was formed really by three Venezuelans who were very close to the dictator Chavez of Venezuela and it was formed in order to fix elections.”

[Sidney] Powell: “The money creating [Dominion] came out of Venezuela and Cuba… It is one huge, huge criminal conspiracy that should be investigated by military intelligence.”

[Jeanine] Pirro: “Yes, and hopefully the Department of Justice, but who knows anymore.”

As NPR points out, the Dominion lawsuit disclosed texts from each of these news anchors showing that they knew what they were saying were lies.

Astonishingly, in their rush to protect Murdoch, why do Tessier-Lavigne and Rice not pause to consider the protection due to the victims of the violence Fox helped incite through its reckless and self-serving spreading of misinformation?  Here is part of the testimony of US Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell:

“My fellow officers and I were punched, pushed, kicked, shoved, sprayed with chemical irritants and even blinded with eye-damaging lasers by a violent mob who apparently saw us law enforcement officers, dedicated to ironically protecting them as U.S. citizens, as an impediment in their attempted insurrection,” Gonell said.

In his opening statement, Gonell said that he could hear officers “screaming in agony” as the mob crushed them and that he heard specific threats on the lives of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the event to certify the presidential election in Biden’s favor.

“For the first time, I was more afraid to work at the Capitol than during my entire Army deployment to Iraq,” he said. “In Iraq, we expected armed violence, because we were in a war zone. But nothing in my experience in the Army, or as a law enforcement officer, prepared me for what we confronted on Jan. 6.”

The Guardian reported that members of security details were so terrorized that many said goodbye to their loved ones:

The official said: “The members of the VP detail at this time were starting to fear for their own lives. There was a lot of yelling. There were a lot of very personal calls over the radio, so it was disturbing. I don’t like talking about it.

“There were calls to say goodbye to family members, so on and so forth… for whatever reason it was on the ground, the VP detail thought this was about to get very ugly.”

Such terrified and panicked messages were relayed from the Capitol around the time Trump tweeted to his supporters a now infamous 2:24 p.m. message in which he did nothing to calm the riot.

It is beyond belief that anyone, much less the president of a university, would claim that what Rupert Murdoch did in facilitating Fox’s attack on the truth should not only be condoned, but even protected by, of all things, his “academic freedom.” Yes, Tessier-Lavigne called critics of such reckless and dangerous misinformation, members of his own faculty, “thought police” because we are supposedly infringing upon Murdoch’s “academic freedom,” and Rice repeated the same charge.

I have made clear my feeling that “academic freedom” has been devastatingly cheapened and instrumentalized at Stanford, and this is exactly what Tessier-Lavigne and Rice are doing. As far as I know, Rupert Murdoch is not (yet) a member of our faculty. Protecting the dissemination of misinformation under the umbrella of academic freedom is a tremendously dangerous move to make — if this were to be established as legitimate, it would exonerate anyone accused of any kind of research misconduct. Yet when faculty object to these violations of ethics we are accused of imposing “an orthodoxy.” Such an accusation is an affront to every decent person at Stanford University.

Why are we so anxious to maintain our relationship with Rupert Murdoch, whose actions stand in direct opposition to Stanford’s supposed commitment to truthful information and to producing knowledge for the public good? Why should the public ever trust us if we harbor and protect Rupert Murdoch? What does this say about Stanford University?

Since neither the University president nor the provost nor the director of the Hoover Institution, all addressees of our faculty letter, have answered the question we posed — why is Rupert Murdoch affiliated with Stanford? — we are free to draw our own conclusions.  Two reasons stand out — money and connections.  Put in that light, let there be no mistake, Stanford University and the Hoover Institution are accepting money derived from corporations that have made that money by, among other things, fueling the Insurrection with misinformation and pushing antisemitic hate.

That the president of our University and the director of an institution premised on, among other things, the protection of democracy from authoritarianism, should collaborate, using such shabby pretenses and threadbare evasions, to protect the world’s largest purveyor of misinformation as he uses his vast media network to pollute public discourse and threaten the democracy of the United States, is an insult to intelligence and morally appalling. This episode may well go down in not only the history of US higher education, but even in the history of our country, as a dark stain. Tessier-Lavigne’s and Rice’s cynical, instrumental and illogical use of concepts and values we hold dear — free speech and academic freedom — points to a cancer deep in our leadership that seems to be metastasizing daily.

And last but not least, their high-handed bullying of the faculty and personal vendettas against those who dare call out each and every one of these transgressions shows their utter contempt for those who use their free speech in ways that displease them.

I was chastised by Director Rice for mentioning the Jeffrey Epstein case at Harvard. I did so because I wanted to remind us of what a university president can be. Here is how I ended my comments at the Faculty Senate meeting:

On Sept. 13, 2019, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow issued a statement dissociating Harvard from Jeffrey Epstein. Even though the Epstein case is not perfectly similar to that of Rupert Murdoch and the Sacklers, one thing Bacow said strikes me as relevant today:

“Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes were repulsive and reprehensible. I profoundly regret Harvard’s past association with him. Conduct such as his has no place in our society. We act today in recognition of that fact… Harvard is not perfect, but you have my commitment as president that we will always strive to be better.”

At stake here is the question as to whether or not Stanford has the courage to, regardless of how some may characterize the action, declare that someone who knowingly allowed the spread of misinformation which presents massive public harm has “no place in our society.”

On behalf of over one hundred members of the faculty of Stanford University, I ask again, what value does Rupert Murdoch bring to Stanford that overrides the damage he has brought to our country?