Image of Trump Spurs Debate at Stanford

Professor says university wouldn’t let her print image of Donald Trump -- from recording where he talked about assaulting women -- for an academic conference on Title IX. Amid growing attention to dispute, university relents.

April 17, 2017
 
Image that Stanford was reluctant to let professor use

A Stanford University law professor says administrators there blocked her from using an image of Donald Trump to promote an academic conference, "The Way Forward: Title IX Advocacy in the Trump Era." Late Friday, the university said she could use the image -- a shift the professor says is the result of her efforts to publicize the dispute and that the university says is just about the process playing out.

The image is from the leaked video of Trump during an Access Hollywood appearance in which he talked (believing himself to be off camera) about groping women, asserted he could have sex with women when he wanted to and said of women that he would "grab them by the pussy." While Trump has since said he was engaged in "locker room" banter and that his comments shouldn't be taken literally, the video's accuracy and that of the screen shot that the professor wanted to use are not in dispute.

Nonetheless, Stanford law school administrators told Michele Landis Dauber, the professor, that she could not print posters using the image, or use the image on a website promoting the conference, which starts May 1.

An email Dauber provided to The Guardian, which first wrote about the dispute, from Sabrina Johnson, associate dean of the law school, said, “We have been clear since January that these Access Hollywood images could give the appearance of partisanship, and since the event is [a law school] event, they shouldn’t be used in the marketing of the event. This is per university policy.” The university recently agreed that Dauber could appeal the matter to the university's general counsel, but has not committed to a time frame for the review, and the conference is now fast approaching.

The Guardian reported that Lisa Lapin, a spokeswoman for Stanford, at first denied that the university barred Dauber from using the materials. But after The Guardian shared Johnson's email with Lapin, she acknowledged that the university asked Dauber not to use the image, but said there had been no final decision.

On Saturday, Lapin emailed Inside Higher Ed to say the general counsel had reviewed the matter and determined that Dauber could use the image to publicize the conference.

"Stanford, like many universities, has long had a policy that, except in very limited circumstances, it will not provide formal endorsements of specific political or policy decisions. This reflects a belief that the university must remain a forum for open debate, even potentially contentious debate, and that refraining from institutional endorsements is essential to creating an environment where members of our community are empowered to advocate their own views," Lapin said. "In addition, as a nonprofit the university must comply with the law that prevents it from engaging in certain partisan activities. While the university does not take positions, individuals on our campus are encouraged to share their ideas."

She added, "Late Friday, when the general counsel had the opportunity to review the issue, the office determined that the use of the photo for this specific policy conference would be permissible under policy. The general counsel, however, did appreciate the law school's original concern that the photo could have created an appearance of partisanship at odds with the goal of creating an environment where all feel free to share their views, even on deeply contested matters, and that the law school could choose not to use the photo in promoting its event."

Via email, Dauber said that the issues involved here raise important principles. First, she said it was wrong for Stanford law officials to imply that the image is partisan.

"This photo -- which is clearly not partisan in any sense of the word -- is also possibly seen as critical or upsetting to some," she said. "Challenging content is not the same as partisan content. Difficult content and difficult conversations about controversial issues are what you are supposed to be able to have at universities. That's the point of academic freedom and the First Amendment principles that undergird it.

"Within broad outlines, speech that is challenging, speech that is critical, speech that gets students thinking about issues is what lies at the very heart of academic freedom. That is the opposite of what is happening here, which is censorship. The notion that a photo of the president of the United States, for which he posed and was paid to pose, is somehow itself 'partisan' when he is not even a candidate for office is not credible."

Dauber added that it was "particularly worrisome that they refused even my request to simply remove Stanford's name and logo from the flier and allow me to print and distribute it on my own and at my own expense. That improperly restricted my own ability to simply engage in free speech as a faculty member," she said. "It is the job of Stanford University to protect and defend faculty academic freedom. It is not the faculty member's job to have to constantly do battle with the university to have the right to speak on controversial topics like sexual assault."

On Sunday, after being told Stanford would let her use the image, Dauber said, "I have been working for months to get the university to allow the use of this image. I made many separate attempts over a four-month period after the initial decision to bar the image, including asking senior administrators to reverse the decision. I'm disappointed that it took media reporting in order for the university to honor its obligation to protect faculty academic freedom."

Hans-Joerg Tiede, associate secretary for academic freedom, tenure and governance of the American Association of University Professors, said via email (before Stanford said it would let the image be used) that he was concerned about Stanford's handling of the situation, which he said raised important academic freedom issues.

He said that the Internal Revenue Service has long recognized the "essentially educational role" of colleges, and that students and faculty members can critically discuss political issues and government leaders. This does not constitute partisan activity by the institution, and the IRS has never claimed otherwise, Tiede said.

"Clearly, references to statements made by President Trump that have been interpreted by many as describing acts of sexual assault are relevant to a conference on Title IX advocacy in the Trump era," Tiede said. "It appears that the decision by the Stanford administration may be an excuse for preventing political controversy from arising out of the use of this image."

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