Stanford University officials’ response to a shared image of a student reading Adolf Hitler’s autobiography has drawn a sharp critique from a national free speech advocacy organization.
The image of the student reading Mein Kampf was shared on the social media platform Snapchat and led to the filing of an online complaint with the university, according to an email from Jewish faith leaders addressed to Jewish Stanford students. It isn’t clear from college officials who filed the complaint, though a Stanford spokeswoman, in response to questions from Inside Higher Ed, said a “concern” was raised by an unnamed student organization.
A screenshot of the image that Inside Higher Ed obtained independently shows a young woman seated and holding a paperback copy of Mein Kampf a bit below her eye level, its cover in the image’s foreground. Another young woman is seated next to her, and they appear to possibly be in a dorm room. The woman holding the book has her forefinger on her closed lips with the fingernail facing outward; her brow is furrowed and eyes are narrowed. The image seems to convey an exaggeratedly thoughtful expression.
“It is an ambiguous photo, and everyone sees what they want to see,” Rabbi Jessica Kirschner, executive director of Hillel at Stanford, a Jewish organization, said Friday in an email to Inside Higher Ed.
Kirschner said some Jewish students found the photo concerning. She and another rabbi at Stanford wrote an email to the university’s Jewish students addressing the concerns raised by the photo.
“Jewish people belong at Stanford, and deserve to be respected by our peers. When that trust is broken, it can eat at all of our sense of belonging, causing damage beyond whatever the original intent might have been,” they wrote.
The complaint filed about the shared photo did not get routed through campus disciplinary channels. According to the email Kirschner and the other rabbi sent to students, it went instead through Stanford’s Protected Identity Harm Reporting system, designed to address bias incidents and provide students “a meaningful response and potential resolution,” according to the university’s 2021 rollout announcement of the system.
Dee Mostofi, a spokeswoman for the university, said, “No one is being punished or investigated by the university for reading a book.”
That’s not quite how the free speech organization the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, sees it. (Note: This sentence was revised to correct a reference to FIRE's formal name.) The organization issued a swift and very critical response to how the incident is being handled by the university after the complaint was first reported by Stanford’s student newspaper, The Stanford Daily. FIRE officials are asking for more clarity on the incident and how the university is handling it.
“Reading a book on a college campus should not prompt formal administrative intervention,” a FIRE program officer wrote in a letter to Stanford University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne. FIRE is asking for a response from Stanford by Wednesday, Feb. 1.
The university’s response to Protected Identity Harm complaints include “a menu of choices,” according to Stanford’s website. Response to a student complaint that is not filed anonymously may involve “mediation” or a “healing circle,” for example. Administrators in announcing the system emphasized that it’s “not a judicial or investigative process, though our goal is to provide a path to resolution for affected individuals or communities.”
In the letter dated Jan. 25, the FIRE official said that such administrative action “chills expressive activity.” The letter also noted that having “a formal reconciliation process to atone for reading a book,” even if participation is voluntary, is still “unacceptably punitive.”
Stanford spokeswoman Mostofi said in an email that the university would not disclose details of individual cases because of student privacy.
She added, however, that the unnamed student organization’s “concern” was about how an image on social media “was being received by other students.”
“At the request of the student organization, we have been engaged in conversation with a number of students, seeking to provide support and foster communication. However, there has been no requirement that any student meet with or report to a university official to discuss the matter,” Mostofi said. She said the university strongly believes in academic freedom and freedom of expression.”
But Julia Steinberg, a Jewish student who writes for The Stanford Review, a conservative-leaning student publication, said the reaction by some on campus “reveals how fast the Stanford community will jump on the censorship train in the name of fighting oppression.”
“No matter the context, we should not chastise students for reading controversial books, and we certainly should not spread an institutional message that ‘feelings of safety and belonging’ should be prioritized above academic freedom to read controversial books or the personal freedom to make an off-kilter joke,” Steinberg wrote in an opinion piece for The Stanford Review.
Kirschner said Mein Kampf is not the problem.
“From the students I’ve spoken to who are upset, the pain point is not the book, it is the possibility of a peer who treats their collective history as a joke,” Kirschner said.
The Stanford Review published the full email co-authored by Kirschner addressed to Stanford Jewish students, which said, “Sometime over the last 2 days, a snapchat screenshot began circulating of a student reading Mein Kampf. Students who saw the picture were disturbed. A Protected Identity Harm Incident report was filed and university administrators are engaged with the issue.”
Alex Morey, FIRE’s director of campus rights advocacy, said Stanford has not responded to FIRE’s letter and that the foundation’s understanding of the complaint is based on the Hillel email.
“Is it really that the student was just seen reading a book? That’s what the quotes here suggest,” Morey said.
Kirschner, however, said her concerns are not with a book that she said “probably merits more critical study, not less.”
“What worries me as a Jewish leader is rising antisemitism in our culture, general ignorance about both the Holocaust and Jews (different subjects, both important), and supporting Jewish students to be strong in their own identities and good citizens of the university while dealing with a thousand paper cuts of disrespect,” she said.
A 2021 survey of Jewish college students in the U.S. found that about one in three had experienced some form of antisemitism within the past year, either on campus or directed at them by someone connected to their college, according to the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International, which together commissioned the survey of 756 self-identifying Jewish students at more than 200 colleges and universities.
A September report of the tearing down of a mezuzah, which is a parchment inscribed with religious verse, from the dorm room door of two Jewish graduate students at Stanford was classified as an antisemitic hate crime, according to the university, which plans to include the report in its annual tally of hate crimes required to be reported under the federal Clery Act.
Mein Kampf, published in 1925, exploded in popularity upon Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. It is taught, or at least excerpts from it, in some courses at Stanford and other colleges around the country, even as debates still pop up about how widely it should be made available on platforms like Amazon.com. The text is described by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia as promoting key components of Nazism, including “rabid antisemitism.”
A humanities course at Stanford recently co-taught by Dan Edelstein, a professor of French, included a short extract of Mein Kampf as part of its reading list. The extract was pulled from the University of Chicago Readings in Western Civilization series, Edelstein said.
“Speaking for myself (as an intellectual historian), I think that it’s important for students to understand how hateful and murderous ideologies came about,” Edelstein said in an email.
The course is open to all undergraduates and was part of Stanford’s Humanities Core, an interdisciplinary program of elective courses.
“Given contemporary concerns about the resurgence of fascism, it seems particularly relevant to examine how fascist ideologues formed,” Edelstein said, adding that including a text on a syllabus isn’t endorsing it.
John Michalczyk, co-director of the Jewish Studies Department at Boston College, has co-produced a documentary about Mein Kampf, along with a scholarly book examining how Hitler’s manifesto set the stage for genocide against Jews. Michalczyk said he’s recently taught a class that covered the documentary.
“We began with Mein Kampf and had students read several chapters. A university like ours or Stanford should not curtail the reading of such a racist and antisemitic manifesto on the grounds that it upsets someone else’s sensitivity,” Michalczyk said.
William Brustein, author of a book on the origins of the Nazi Party, said in an email that Mein Kampf “in a suitable context,” such as a course on the rise of Hitler, would be “relevant reading.”
Ari Kelman, a professor of education and Jewish studies at Stanford, said, “FIRE can write whatever they write,” but it’s appropriate for educators to foster discussions with students “about ideas and words and what those words mean and how they impact people.”
Morey, the FIRE official, said the organization has no issue with universities offering support to students who may be distraught or disturbed by what they experienced, and that colleges can host a town hall or other campus meeting to address any widespread campus concerns.
“Universities can have these types of systems: ‘If you feel bias or need support, reach out to us and we can support you.’ We take no stance on whether that’s good or bad,” Morey said.
But the issue is when colleges take action involving those named in complaints for activity that does not rise to the level of harassment, Morey said, adding that such “online bias reporting” portals began to rise in popularity at U.S. colleges and universities starting around 2015.
When it comes to complaints received through such a system, sometimes “administrators look at this and act,” Morey said. “They launch a formal investigation as if it was harassment or discrimination.”
Kirschner said Stanford’s powerhouse reputation makes it an “easy target for critique, but I do not believe that’s merited here.”
She described the university as “trying to hold space for students to be messy and grow—to make mistakes and bounce back from them, react to each other, reflect, maybe change course or try again.”
Kirschner, who is not a Stanford employee, added, “From the on-the-ground perspective, I can hardly believe it has garnered this kind of attention—it just isn’t merited—but it has been darkly fascinating to watch this situation become a rhetorical foil for people’s ideological assumptions.”
The email published by The Stanford Review from Kirschner and Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper, also an associate dean at Stanford, referred to work being done to resolve the complaint.
“Swift action was taken by the leadership in the residential community where both the individuals who posted and the one pictured are members, and where these actions are causing the most direct damage to relationships and feelings of safety and belonging. Furthermore, Rabbi Hahn Tapper and Student Affairs staff are in ongoing conversation with the individuals involved, who are committed to and actively engaged in a process of reckoning and sincere repair,” read the email.
Last year, Speech First, a right-leaning organization focused on students’ First Amendment rights, together with the Goldwater Institute, a conservative/libertarian public policy think tank, developed model legislation for consideration of state lawmakers to use to severely limit such practices at public universities. The language of the model legislation states that it seeks “to ensure that no state-operated university or community colleges accepting public funding create or utilize a ‘bias reporting system.’”
A California law known as the Leonard Law, passed in the early 1990s, is designed to prohibit nonreligious private colleges from creating rules to discipline students for engaging in expression protected by the First Amendment, according to the Student Press Law Center.
Mostofi said Stanford’s processes “do not allow for the punishment of any protected speech, and there has been no such punishment in this case.”