A challenge and an opportunity

The Olmert controversy highlights the necessity of free expression.

By Kimberly Goff-Crews

Amid the activism and strong feelings that have surrounded the appearance of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert comes a challenge and an opportunity.

President Zimmer and Provost Rosenbaum, in their letter to campus earlier this week, laid out the challenge: It is up to all of us at the University to live out our shared, fundamental values of free expression and civil discourse.

This is the opportunity: We find ourselves in one of those rare moments that rise above the busyness of our daily lives, a chance to have a real conversation about something that matters deeply to us.

Free expression is more than just a platitude. It’s what makes our common endeavor worthwhile. It is a principle we cannot compromise. And it is not easy—not intellectually, where one person’s expression can be interpreted by another as an obstacle to discourse; not emotionally, where our deeply held beliefs and experiences sometimes cry out against a particular person’s right to speak; not practically, where there are often more voices than can be heard at a single event.

We are not the first to grapple with these issues at the University. Discussion about free expression populates the pages of our history, including a 2006 message from then-Provost Richard Saller, who wrote, “The University achieves its mission not by the subtractive process of silencing opponents, but by the additive process of contestation.”

The University community has hosted a number of contentious events over time, and developed some sound precepts and practices out of that experience. We do not veto speakers sponsored by recognized groups on campus solely because of their ideas. We do not mandate that equal time be given to opposing views within the same event. Many speakers here represent a particular point of view, and in order to hear them fully, we accept that any given event may lean toward a single perspective. The diversity of viewpoints and voices emerges over time, through the rich variety of offerings here at the University and the myriad opportunities for creating dialogue.

We also recognize the fundamental value in hearing dissenting views, and we are committed to the rights of protesters to express their ideas on this campus. There is, in fact, a tradition of creative, thought-provoking protest and counter-protest here—a culture embodied by at least three separate demonstrations that took place outside Mandel Hall on October 15. As long as they proceed peacefully and safely, protesters are given wide latitude to express their views.

As an institution, we believe that protests must neither interfere with the speaker’s ability to speak, nor with the audience’s ability to engage with the speaker in question-and-answer. That belief is crucial enough that it is embedded in University Statute 21, which prohibits “conduct disruptive of the operations of the University, including interference with instruction, research, administrative operations, freedom of association, and meetings.”

We recognize the need to create a structure and space for the strong feelings that inevitably accompany some controversial events. These are natural human responses, and sometimes we need to account for them as part of our effort to promote the ideal of a rigorous intellectual exchange. We do that by creating rules of engagement and by providing support at events and elsewhere on campus.

We are committed to supporting these practices, but I want to see if we can take the conversation further. How do we as individuals live out our belief in free expression? How do we uphold our beliefs when the conversation stretches beyond our University community? How can we design one-time and ongoing events that best foster the dialogue we are seeking?

I invite you to start by looking at some of the conversation that has historically taken place at the University, gathered on a new Web page, http://news.uchicago.edu/btn/free.expression.php. I plan to address the issue at a number of upcoming student events, and colleagues across campus may be planning their own gatherings. I’d also like to hear how all of you think we should proceed. Please feel free to e-mail me at kmgoffcrews@uchicago.edu with your ideas about how this conversation should continue.

Kimberly Goff-Crews is the Vice President for Campus Life and Dean of Students in the University.