Civil liberties group says free speech not safe at U of C

The University’s free speech policies were criticized last Tuesday by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), who claim that the U of C has not carried through with its promised commitment to open student discourse.

By Michael Lipkin

The University’s free speech policies were criticized last Tuesday by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), who claim that the U of C has not carried through with its promised commitment to open student discourse. The academia-focused civil liberties group also found fault with the University’s policies on bias reporting and organized protest.

“The University of Chicago has chilled speech across the campus,” Adam Kissel (M.A.’02), director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, wrote in a press release.

FIRE’s attention was drawn to the U of C after reading a Maroon article last quarter about the administration’s request that then-fourth-year Andrew Thompson (A.B. ‘09) remove a Facebook photo album titled “[Name of ex-girlfriend] cheated on me and you’re next!” The album also contained derogatory comments aimed at the ex-girlfriend, who brought it to Dean of Students Susan Art’s attention. Art defended the move to the Maroon last quarter by citing the Student Manual, which states that on- or off-campus behavior that does not “treat others with dignity and respect” may necessitate action under the University disciplinary system.

“Clearly Susan Art believes that the University has the right to enforce social standards in respect,” Kissel said in an interview. “There’s a lot of speech that people find offensive or disrespectful, but which is protected.”

Kissel pointed to a passage in the Student Manual that he claims rebuts Art’s argument. “The ideas of different members of the University community will frequently conflict and we do not attempt to shield people from ideas that they may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive,” according to the Manual. “Nor, as a general rule, does the University intervene to enforce social standards of civility.”

FIRE gave the University, and three-fourths of universities nationwide, a “red-light” rating indicating it violates free speech. Kissel said he was particularly disturbed by the University’s contradictory passages in the Manual that alternatively promise and undermine free speech.

“It is impossible to see how the University’s commitment to freedom of expression can coexist, without contradiction, with policies that restrict that freedom,” Kissel wrote in a letter sent to President Robert Zimmer in February. “As noble as it may seem to institutionally oppose [discrimination], the University goes too far when it employs such policies to restrict and censor clearly protected speech.”

While the University, as a private institution, is not bound by First Amendment protections, the Supreme Court case Davis v. Monroe Board of Education allows for all colleges to prohibit speech that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”

The University responded to the letter in April. “In order to make the free exchange of ideas possible, students, faculty, and other members of our community must help create a safe, respectful climate in which inquiry and debate can flourish,” University spokesman Bill Harms wrote.

Kissel called this response “shameful…. Most universities at least give us the courtesy of a substantial response. The U of C has not,” Kissel said in the interview. “It’s a pretty poor response and worse than usual.”

University spokesman Steve Kloehn disagreed with Kissel’s characterization. “I believe that is a substantive response to questions around speech, the kind of response we would give any outside institution that wanted to understand our motivations,” Kloehn said in an e-mail interview. “We believe that the most appropriate way to handle student matters is directly with the students, not through third parties.” Kloehn and other administrators declined to comment further.

FIRE also took issue with the University’s requirement that student protests be organized 48 hours in advance and its bias response team, which investigates offensive, but not necessarily illegal, speech acts on campus. Examples of this speech provided by the University include derogatory comments made in person or on a dorm whiteboard.

“Unlike genuine harassment—which must be severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive—any expression ‘perceived as derogatory’ and based on certain personal characteristics constitutes a ‘bias incident’ at Chicago,” Kissel wrote on FIRE’s website May 5. “The University is developing a 1984 or Soviet Russia-style community in which members are encouraged to report one another’s biases to the authorities.”

Kissel advocated addressing bias incidents with the University community, instead of restricting speech. He referenced a University-organized forum in 2005 following a “Straight Thuggin’” dorm party. The forum, which aimed to increase racial sensitivity, affirmed the offending students’ free speech rights.

“That debate didn’t punish students, but criticized their actions,” Kissel said. “That should be the role of the University: to provide speech of their own discrediting what has been deemed offensive.”

FIRE last advocated for a University student in 2000 when it chastised the U of C for forcing then-graduate-student Kissel to issue a University-wide apology after he forwarded a public e-mail from an administrator, adding a misleading subject heading. According to Kissel, a letter from FIRE caused the University to back down, although Kloehn could not confirm the letter.