In his attack on Stanford University's free speech debate {op-ed, July 21}, Nat Hentoff trivialized an intellectual debate that has spanned two years while overlooking the most important players in the process: the students themselves.

As the editor-in-chief of Stanford's student newspaper last year, I can attest that the debate was not simply an emotional controversy initiated by "righteous censors," as Hentoff charged. Stanford's administration often took out full-page ads in the newspaper and filled the space with legal arguments presented from both sides of the debate so that students would have a better understanding of the complexities of constitutional law.

In the newspaper office or during discussions in the dorm, I would hear students arguing these legal explanations as they tried to apply them to real scenarios that occurred on campus. For example, "what do you do when a freshman who has been at school only two weeks shouts 'nigger' in another student's face?" "Can you punish students for dressing up like members of the Ku Klux Klan in the middle of the night and demonstrating outside dorms?"

Especially offensive was Hentoff's characterization of Stanford's "mindless ardor" to protect minorities. Students and faculty, acutely aware of the necessity for free inquiry in a university setting, attempted to balance the need for open dialogue with the need for an environment in which minorities can learn without being harassed.

In addition, Hentoff's rendition of the debate made Stanford President Donald Kennedy seem a weak-kneed father figure who caved in to a whining faculty that was overly concerned with protecting minority students' feelings at the expense of First Amendments rights. In reality, Kennedy, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration, is a shrewd man who worked with faculty and students to determine if free speech has limits and, if so, whether it is possible to draw boundary lines without infringing on First Amendment rights.

Even at a prestigious university, racism, antisemitism and homophobia are inescapable. The fact that Stanford's students, professors and administrators struggled for two years to understand how manifestations of these prejudices should be dealt with deserves commendation, not naive attacks. -- Kathy Lachenauer