Sigal Ben-Porath’s Inside Higher Ed article, Against Endorsing the Chicago Principles, puts the urgent need for uncompromised freedom of expression on a slippery slope. While properly observing that espousing even a clear statement of commitment is insufficient, Ben-Porath rejects the idea of its absolute necessity and thereby risks entirely derailing mainstream efforts to protect free speech on college campuses.
The Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, now widely known as the Chicago principles, has become a gold standard among institutions that wish to show their commitment to this core principle of American higher education. There has recently been a significant uptick in the number of institutions joining in support — which is not surprising, given that the 931-word statement is balanced and nuanced, protecting both those articulating unpopular viewpoints and the rights of protesters. Let us underscore that point at the beginning: the Chicago principles envision and protect both controversial viewpoints and protests against those viewpoints, with the proviso that protesters “may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”
Ben-Porath expresses two major concerns with the Chicago principles: 1) that they are not a one-size-fits-all solution to the free speech debate and 2) that the Chicago principles, and free speech more widely, can come at the cost of silencing minorities — whether religious, ethnic, racial or sexual.
Ben-Porath is correct that endorsing the Chicago principles is not a silver bullet that ensures freedom of expression, a point that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently concurred with. But that is not what endorsing the principles is meant to accomplish. The Chicago principles constitute a statement of intent that a university can use to guide it in fostering the free exchange of ideas. If a university is so committed, it will align its bylaws, student code of conduct, faculty handbook and programming to reflect that commitment.
For example, after Purdue University endorsed the Chicago principles, it instituted a freshman orientation that focused on the importance of free speech. Other institutions translate the Chicago principles into action in other ways. Just as the Declaration of Independence has no legal power and cannot ensure that all men are treated with the respect due to being created equal, it articulates a sacred American value with profound effect.
Ben-Porath’s second point is that the demand for free speech is itself problematic, arguably even destructive of academic values. That assertion bears the marks of ideological prejudice in its portrayal of the concern to protect free speech not as a categorical value of higher education but as a means of protecting conservatism. It is true that, in many instances, conservatives have rallied for academic freedom, as they often feel marginalized on college campuses, but they are hardly the only beneficiaries of a culture of free and open discussion. C. Vann Woodward, for example, led the committee at Yale University that drafted the classic 1975 Woodward Report on freedom of expression, but before one concludes that its intent was to protect speakers such as General William Westmoreland or the racist William Shockley, it is important to recall that decades earlier he had defended Angelo Herndon, an African American communist charged in Georgia with insurrection.
Ben-Porath claims that free speech “comes at the expense of the reasonable demands” from those burdened by the free speech that protects biased views. But what is bias to one person may reasonably be seen as truth by another: that is precisely why the free exchange of ideas alone can further understanding. Perhaps Ben-Porath is right that proving biased views to be incorrect is a burden, but it is a responsibility that comes with leading an examined life and a valuable educational exercise in and of itself. To protect students from this activity would weaken the academic experience.
It is, moreover, all too short a step from that to Herbert Marcuse’s theory that tolerance of viewpoints that diverge from liberalism is itself repressive, and from there to the contemporary meme that speech that departs from the perceived interests of the oppressed is a form of violence that justifies physical violence to counter it. At institutions including the University of California, Berkeley, and Middlebury College, the fruit of that ideology has stained the reputation of higher education. The clarity of the Chicago principles is urgently needed.
But even more troubling is Ben-Porath’s suggestion that free speech is of particular value to conservative students and is “too often used as a political tool by the right.” It is Ben-Porath, however, who thereby politicizes the discussion. The opening of the Chicago principles references how the University of Chicago’s president Robert Maynard Hutchins defended the absolute right of William Z. Foster, the chairman of the Communist Party USA in the 1950s, to visit and address the university despite public outrage. Hutchins said that “our students … should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself,” despite his personal anticommunist beliefs. The Chicago principles are a seamless extension of the university’s proud legacy of protecting unpopular viewpoints.
Ben-Porath seems to imply that a college that accepts freedom of expression may become a toxic environment in which minority students cannot express themselves. That does not appear to have happened at the University of Chicago, Purdue University, Princeton University or Johns Hopkins University — top-tier, diverse institutions that have all adopted the Chicago principles. And that raises the question, is the anti-Chicago principles hysteria at Williams College and elsewhere factually based, or is it simply fantastical? Just as Americans during the red scare feared that allowing Marxists any type of platform would lead to revolution, chaos and despotism, overly zealous campus communities seem to dread that permitting controversial thought will undermine all sense of intellectual decency.
There is a sad irony that Ben-Porath’s own institution, the University of Pennsylvania, most desperately needs a recommitment to the free exchange of ideas. Last summer, the University of Pennsylvania Law School began its own campaign of harassment against Amy Wax for co-authoring an op-ed identifying the positive impact of bourgeois values and questioning the effectiveness of affirmative action. Penn’s posture and official sanctions of Wax are chilling evidence of why Ben-Porath’s institution itself needs a cultural reset that would engage challenging ideas rather than put them to silence.
The worst irony of all is that the world of higher education, which should be eager for vigorous debate and challenge, often lags behind the diverse leaders who embrace free speech as the engine of progress. U.S. congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis asserted, “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings.” And, in a more recent struggle, Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and LGBTQ advocate, observed, “Not long ago, gays were pariahs. We had no real political power, only the force of our arguments. In a society where free exchange is the rule, that was enough. We had the coercive power of truth.”
The integrity of higher education, too, rests on the uncompromising protection of the powerful truth that those who struggle for minority rights know so well.