Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Colleges Draw Hard Lines Against Calls to Restrict Speech

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  February 29, 2016 by Peter Schmidt

As colleges around the nation face pressure to regulate campus speech, several have pushed back by formally declaring refusals to limit the exchange of ideas.

At the forefront is the University of Chicago, which last year adopted a statement on free expression on campuses that is being heralded as a model for colleges elsewhere. Its statement says the university should not try to shield people from ideas “they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,” and has a responsibility to ensure visiting speakers on campus are unhindered by student protesters.

The Chicago statement, adopted in January 2015, has inspired Chapman, Princeton, Purdue, and Winston-Salem State Universities, and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, to adopt free-speech declarations that quote it almost verbatim. The Johns Hopkins University adopted a similar declaration, which is more focused on academic freedom and its promotion abroad. The University of Wisconsin system’s Board of Regents passed a resolution incorporating both the Chicago and the Johns Hopkins statements. One of the Chicago statement’s most widely copied provisions says that the university, as an institution, should refrain from judging the worthiness of speech, and instead leave it up to people on campus to openly challenge speech that they oppose. “Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas,” it declares.

The statement’s opposition to restrictions on speech is evident from its history. Robert J. Zimmer, the University of Chicago’s president, and Eric D. Isaacs, its provost, created the committee that devised the statement in the wake of a campus uproar over the use of the word “tranny” by a visiting speaker, the syndicated sex columnist and LGBT activist Dan Savage. Student activists had demanded that the Institute of Politics, which had brought Mr. Savage to campus, apologize for the incident and pledge to prevent any new expression of slurs or hate speech.
Geoffrey R. Stone, a law professor who chaired the Chicago committee, says demands from many students for restrictions on offensive speech betray “a lack of understanding of what the fundamental purpose of a university is.”

Two prominent advocacy groups, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, have urged colleges throughout the nation to adopt the Chicago statement as their own.

Others are less enthused. Peter W. Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, has faulted the Chicago statement for failing to consider whether some types of speech, such as deliberate mispresentations of history, lack academic value that merits their protection. The National Review published a critique arguing that Chicago’s pledge to protect even offensive speech was undermined by its continued operation of a “bias response team” — not uncommon in academe — that fields students’ complaints of being offended.

Whatever its merits, the statement hardly represents the final word on speech debates at Chicago. President Zimmer and Provost Isaacs acknowledged as much last summer, in a campuswide memo that accused campus activists of violating the statement’s principles by disrupting an awards ceremony and occupying part of a building there. The memo said there was a place for protests at the university. But it called the actions of those particular protesters, who were demanding the construction of a trauma center at a university hospital, “directly antithetical to the university’s values” because they blocked the awards event from taking place.

Sara W. Rubinstein, a senior at Chicago and a founder of the campus group Queers United in Power, says she viewed the administration’s stand on the trauma-center protests as evidence of how the university’s protections of speech are “thrown out the window when marginalized groups say things that challenge those in power.”


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