FIRE campaign promotes UChicago free speech policy

The campaign encourages universities across the nation to adopt the policy.

By Tamar Honig

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) launched a national campaign in support of the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago earlier this year.

FIRE is an organization whose mission is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. The campaign comes at a time of nationwide debate over what constitutes free speech and to what extent expression should be protected or censored by universities. Recent racially-charged issues at the University of Missouri and Yale University have raised concerns over how administrations handle speech that makes students feel offended, uncomfortable, or unsafe.

To encourage adoption of the UChicago statement, FIRE has written to hundreds of faculty members, students, and student journalists at colleges and universities nationwide, encouraging them to join the effort. Additionally, FIRE has published an online statement on the UChicago principles to which visitors to the website can pledge their support, as well as a model freedom of expression resolution based on the UChicago statement that can be adopted by other institutions.

“Our plans are to continue to promote the University of Chicago report,” FIRE’s Vice President of Legal and Public Advocacy Will Creeley said. “We think that the report very eloquently captures the importance of preserving the principle of free expression on the college campus, both for students and for faculty and for the larger public.”

The Committee on Freedom of Expression was appointed in July 2014 by President Robert Zimmer and Provost Eric D. Isaacs. Their charge was to draft a statement articulating the University’s commitment to free expression.

“The Statement reaffirms the University’s distinctive commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression,” said Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law Geoffrey Stone, who chaired the committee. “Its main points are that a vigorous freedom of speech is essential to the mission of a great university; that it is the responsibility of the University and its members to promote and support that freedom of speech; and that although civility and mutual respect are important values, they cannot justify the suppression of ideas because some or even most members of the University community find those ideas offensive or hateful.”

FIRE endorsed the statement in January, and since then several institutions have followed suit. Princeton University and Purdue University have adapted its core values to their own policies. Johns Hopkins University and American University have endorsed a similar set of principles as well. In September, faculty at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina endorsed the UChicago principles—the first historically black institution to do so. The campaign is ongoing at schools such as the University of Minnesota, where an academic freedom group is pushing to adopt the UChicago policies.

“Other institutions are, of course, perfectly free to adopt their own positions on freedom of speech. But as the statement notes…in our view an institution must be committed to a robust, vigorous, and open freedom of debate and discussion of all ideas, however offensive or disturbing some members of the community might find them, if it is to be a ‘true’ university,” Stone said.

Kenneth Warren, professor in the English department and member of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, cautioned against assuming that the UChicago statement is a perfect fit for all institutions.

“While I am generally pleased that other organizations and institutions that value freedom of expression have found our statement useful, I wouldn’t want to see the issue of freedom of expression reduced to a question of whether or not an institution decides to adopt or endorse the University of Chicago’s statement,” Warren said.

“If they do, that’s great. But it’s too easy to forget that part of what’s valuable about adopting such a statement is the process of debate and discussion that members of an institution engage in for the purpose of determining how they want to affirm the principles of freedom of expression….It would be the height of irony if FIRE’s national campaign were to end up compelling a certain outcome rather than facilitating the open, vigorous debate that the statement seeks to uphold,” he said.

As part of the efforts to gain traction for the UChicago principles, Creeley and Stone co-wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post in September decrying what they characterized as recent incidents of censorship in the academic community and arguing that restrictions on free expression on college campuses violate the values of higher education. The article goes on to laud the UChicago statement and encourage its recognition by other institutions.

“[Students] would be taught that the proper response to ideas they oppose is not censorship, but argument on the merits,” the article reads.

Azhar Majeed, the director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program, commented on the nature of a university’s obligations to its students.

“Students do not have a ‘right not to be offended’ on college campuses,” Majeed said. “However, they do have a right to be free of harassment, truly threatening behavior, and interference with their ability to receive an education. Thus, it is the job of the university to prevent the second type of scenarios from happening, while making sure that their students’ free speech rights are upheld. If students feel upset or offended by particular viewpoints, their best resource is counter speech, not censorship.”

Stone affirmed a similar stance on the bounds of a university’s responsibilities. “It is not the responsibility of the University to ‘protect’ students or any other members of the University community from being exposed to ideas that they find offensive, hateful, or upsetting,” he said. “Learning to respond effectively to ideas we oppose or even loathe is an essential part of learning to be an effective citizen.”

According to Creeley, FIRE’s plans are to continue to promote the UChicago statement and the allowance of robust freedom of expression amongst students and faculty on campuses around the country.