With recent events intensifying the political atmosphere for some, the administration attempted to ensure that the discourse on campus remains civil. Steven Klass, vice president and dean of students in the University, and Provost Richard Saller, in an e-mail to the student body Tuesday, addressed the problem of interference with freedom of expression in the University community.
The message emphasized the need for people to respect the political opinions of others. Klass said no particular incident caused them to write the letter, but they had been planning on writing such a letter since the fall.
“Geopolitical issues have been creating tensions on campus for years. We’ve witnessed people taking down posters with certain political stances, people heckling speakers because they didn’t agree with them. This sort of thing happens every yearand it’s totally unacceptable,” Klass explained.
Klass said he felt it was better that the letter did not address particular events so that people would focus on the message and not on an incident. “We wanted to promote dialogue about the basic tenants of the First Amendment and the right we all have to express our views in a civilized manner,” he said.
Grace Lin, president of the College Republicans and a second-year in the College, said she thinks the problem with freedom of expression stems from a lack of centralization in the University.
Lin said she thought the letter was appropriate, believing it to be consistent with the University’s long-standing respect for robust debate, candid disagreement, and civil discourse.
Geoffrey R. Stone, Harry Kalven, distinguished professor of law and former provost of the University, noted that the University has long been a national leader in protecting and promoting academic freedom.
“The Kalven Report remains the touchstone of the University of Chicago’s policies and it is the best statement ever offered by a university community about the profound importance of free and open debate,” Stone said.
“Certainly the idea that individuals should listen and try to learn even from ideas they oppose, rather than try to stifle or suppress them, is at the very heart of this nation’s commitment to free expression and of this University’s soul,” he added.
Some faculty are concerned that certain professors are using the classroom for political persuasion and have been grading down students who disagree with them. Lisa Bernstein, Wilson-Dickson Professor at the Law School, said she thought such behavior was antithetical to what the University stood for and contrary to her teaching philosophy.
“I recall the classroom being a place where all well-argued views were welcomed and valued. It saddens me greatly that this no longer appears to be a shared value among University faculty,” said Bernstein.
She added that she particularly enjoys reading papers written by students who do not share her views on the law. “It adds a wonderful back-and-forth quality to our conversations and sometimes has forced me to rethink even deeply held positions. As a graduate of the college my fondest memories are of the debates I had with my professors on various subjects,” she said.
Kristin Greer Love, a student in the College and vice president of the University of Chicago Democrats, said she and her group agreed with the e-mail. “When restrictions exist that impede the free exchange of ideas, we have a civic responsibility to encourage the elimination of these barriers to dialogue,” Love said.
Lin said she thought the letter was sent out to keep the administration safe. “I would be more likely to think that the University is simply sending out this letter as a disclaimer, so in the event that anyone does break this statute the University can claim to be nonpartisan,” she said.
She added that the Student Government elections last year brought about controversy due to heckling speakers and defacing, removing, or obscuring announcements, posters, or other publications to prevent them from reaching their intended audiences.