Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Who’s Afraid of Free Speech: A Tale of Two Universities

WASHINGTON EXAMINER   |  August 31, 2016 by Alexis Zhang

It is now the best of times and the worst of times on college campuses, and in the Windy City in particular. Less than 10 miles separate the University of Chicago and DePaul University geographically, but a gulf has formed between them. Where the University of Chicago has been resolute in its defense of freedom of expression, DePaul University has flailed: It desperately needs to follow the moral leadership coming from Hyde Park.

Recently, the University of Chicago’s undergraduate Dean of Students, Jay Ellison, mailed a welcome letter to its incoming class of 2020 in which he reiterated the university’s commitment to academic freedom and intellectual diversity, regardless of disagreement or discomfort. He made clear that trigger warnings, speaker disinvitations, and so-called safe spaces have no place at the U. of C. In this, the university upheld the legacy of its onetime president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, that “free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] that without it they cease to be universities.”

Contrast the University of Chicago’s standard with DePaul’s — and that of far too many campuses nationwide. After provocateur Milo Yiannopolous spoke on campus in May, the DePaul administration outrageously blamed him for the kerfuffle that occurred when university-mandated security officers failed to stop disruptive protesters. They then banned Yiannopolous from returning for a second lecture. This month, DePaul doubled down on its illiberalism by preventing its College Republicans from inviting the writer Ben Shapiro to speak, blithely ignoring its own Guiding Principles on Speech and Expression in the process.

DePaul chose expediency, acceding to the heckler’s veto. Shapiro, administrators announced, could not be allowed to speak, because he had caused controversy while visiting other schools. But the University of Chicago has held firm, rejecting hecklers’ whims and defining itself by what have come to be known as the Chicago Principles, namely that: “The University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters … it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the members of the University community to make those judgments for themselves.”

As classes begin, colleges and universities have a choice. They can follow DePaul University’s path and restrict campus speech, or they can emulate the University of Chicago’s time-tested model and unreservedly safeguard it.

In 1915, the American Association of University Professors’ Declaration of Principles first recognized the importance of unfettered academic freedom. It cast the university as “an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas” — of all kinds — “may germinate and where their fruit…may be allowed to ripen.” And for decades thereafter, this vision has remained a driving aspiration for higher education, no matter the tumult.

As the 1974 C. Vann Woodward report at Yale emphasized, “We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox… Every official of the university … has a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed.” This May, even President Obama — himself a former University of Chicago faculty member — felt compelled to weigh in, reminding students in his Howard University commencement address that disagreeable views should be challenged in the “battlefield of ideas” rather than preemptively shouted down.

Already, some schools have made their decision. Johns Hopkins, Purdue, and Princeton, among others, have each adopted the Chicago Principles as their own. Other institutions would do well to heed their examples. Which colleges and universities will stand up for free speech, and which will capitulate to hecklers? There is no issue more urgent for boards of trustees. Is DePaul listening?


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