A Stanford University student group's hosting of a provocative speaker, an author who believes Islam justifies violence and terrorism, has sparked controversy over the limits of free speech on campus.
The Stanford College Republicans have invited Robert Spencer, author of the "Jihad Watch" blog, to speak at the group's flagship event of the year on Tuesday night. Spencer's blog is "dedicated to bringing public attention to the role that jihad theology and ideology play in the modern world and to correcting popular misconceptions about the role of jihad and religion in modern-day conflicts."
Spencer is also the co-founder of Stop Islamization of America and the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
While the College Republicans describe him as eminently qualified to speak about radical Islamic terrorism and international security, Spencer's work and qualifications are not without controversy. The Southern Poverty Law Center deems Spencer one of the country's "most prolific and vociferous anti-Muslim propagandists" and classifies the two organizations he co-founded as hate groups.
His upcoming talk at Stanford has ignited debate about tolerance and speech rights at a university whose founding motto is "The wind of freedom blows."
The College Republicans, who did not respond to multiple interview requests, recently defended their decision to invite Spencer in a piece published in the Stanford Review. They said they hope to challenge the "conventional wisdom" about Islam on college campuses and "ignite a spirited discussion" about a pressing issue.
"Mr. Spencer’s central assertion is that jihadist groups are inspired to commit acts of violence against unbelievers by passages in the Quran and Hadiths that exhort believers to do so," the group wrote. "We have invited Robert Spencer to campus to add a sorely needed perspective to an important conversation about international security."
Opposition to Spencer's visit by students has been swift. Twenty student groups joined together to pen an open letter demanding the College Republicans cancel the event. Two Stanford Law School groups, the Muslim Law Students Association and Stanford Advocates for Immigrants' Rights also wrote an op-ed published in the Stanford Daily Monday, "College Republicans promote hate and disinformation."
The undergraduate and graduate student senates formally condemned the event, which is not open to the public.
The open letter, signed by groups including the Arab Students Association at Stanford, the Muslim and Black student unions and the Stanford Democrats, argues that "Spencer's arguments demonize Islam and perpetuate fear-mongering against Muslims, including Stanford's own Muslim community and others vulnerable to Islamophobia.
"The decision to host this event does not establish Stanford as a campus where free speech reigns but one where hate speech is given a microphone," they wrote.
The coalition, dubbed Stanford Against Islamophobia, has organized a rally during Spencer's talk, which the organizers hope will provide an alternative place for people to express their views.
"We're asking the campus to boycott the event so as to not legitimize (Spencer's) presence or engage with him," said Ramah Awad, a Palestinian Stanford student and Stanford Against Islamophobia member.
In a blog post last week, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell wrote, "The free expression of ideas is absolutely central to the academic life of the university. At the same time, we recognize and worry about the fear or hurt that many individuals experience based on rhetoric in our country or interactions they have in our own community."
The university has said it supports the College Republicans' right to invite an outside speaker to campus and for others to protest peacefully, as long as university policies are followed.
If a speaker "espouses views that are at odds with the fundamental values of the university, the university leadership will not hesitate to speak out against those ideas, even as we allow them to be voiced," Tessier-Lavigne and Drell wrote.
In a separate blog post, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole and Dean for Religious Life Jane Shaw said that Spencer's "track record of actions and speech that motivate hatred towards Muslims ... contradict(s) our university's values of inclusion and respect for all peoples and faiths."
Awad said she's not satisfied with how the Stanford administration has responded.
"We have made a strong case for why Robert Spencer is not the person to bring on issues relating to Islam or issues relating to foreign policy," she said. "I don't think they're respecting their own academic integrity by allowing this event, and they're not regarding Muslim students on campus (and) people of color on campus."
Funding for the event has also sparked some controversy. The College Republicans is paying for the "bulk" of costs with funding from Stanford's student-government body, the Associated Students of Stanford University, but the university is also providing funds through "a program that provides a partial subsidy for events requiring security," a university Q&A states.
University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin declined to state how much money or what kind of security Stanford has provided, citing "security reasons."
A petition opposing the use of student fees for a speaker who is "actively hostile to a large segment of our campus community" has gathered hundreds of signatures.
The university plans to make staff available both at and immediately after the event to "support" students.
In the Stanford Review piece, the College Republicans said it "reject(s) all attempts to curtail freedom of speech on this campus" and expects the same "fair" treatment its members have given other student political groups who hosted speakers with whom they disagreed.
"We also expect that Stanford will live up to its reputation as an intellectually challenging institution open to a free exchange of ideas," the group wrote.