University’s Policy a Feature Point in National Campus Free Speech Debate

“Chicago is my main hope.”

By Cairo Lewis

Jonathan Haidt, a prominent social psychologist, established a reputation as a leading advocate for unrestricted speech on campus when he co-authored an article in The Atlantic magazine called “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The University of Chicago, Haidt said in an interview with Minding the Campus last month, is a prominent exception to his generally grim outlook on campus free speech.

The University of Chicago’s Statement on Freedom of Expression was drafted by a committee appointed by top University administrators and adopted a little more than a year ago. Throughout the national debate on free speech at colleges and universities, proponents of less restrictive policies have pointed to the University’s Statement as a model, even as the issue continues to spark contention on the University of Chicago’s campus. They have expressed this view in the opinion pages of newspapers, and on other campuses where the policy has been proposed or adopted.

Haidt believes that UChicago’s history with free speech adds to the University’s credibility as an institution.

“There have been lots of reports about the [University’s Statement] emerging as the alternative model, and that is in part because the University of Chicago has had a long reputation of holding its truths sacred,” he said.

Haidt also discussed the difficulty of describing hate speech in documents like the Chicago Statement. “It’s difficult to define hate speech because it has been reduced to any kind of speech that makes anyone feel uncomfortable,” he said.

Media outlets including The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have published support for the statement.

“The statement is, in short, written not only to allow speech, but to facilitate protest,” The Economist wrote in its January 20 report. “When it first appeared, this may have seemed a bit academic. Not any more.”

The report agreed with Haidt’s claim that the University had taken its own history into account when drafting the new statement. It cited University students’ invitation to Communist Party presidential candidate William Foster in 1932 and 1960s protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War as events that called free speech into question.

The Chicago Statement also earned positive ratings from USA Today. UChicago received “an ‘A’ for standing up for much-beleaguered freedom of speech on campus,” while other colleges and universities received Fs, “for running in the opposite direction,” according to the September editorial.

In November, The Maroon reported that Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) endorsed the University’s Statement on Freedom of Expression after recent racially-charged issues at the University of Missouri and Yale University raised concerns over how administrations should handle free speech and hate crimes on college campuses. Members of FIRE believe that it is their mission to defend and sustain individual rights at American colleges and universities.

Kenneth Warren, a professor in the English Department at UChicago and member of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, helped draft the new statement. Warren is pleased that other universities have found the University’s statement to be useful but contends that they should still form statements tailored to their own models.

“Our own statement clearly echoes other ones that have been put together in the past for the University. My colleagues and I wanted to put together as clear of a statement as possible regarding free speech. But it is also my understanding that other campuses should work out their own views, issues, and commitments,” he said.

Other universities that have adopted the statement include Princeton University, Purdue University, Johns Hopkins University, American University, Chapman University, and Winston-Salem State University.

Last April, Princeton University passed a resolution to adopt the Chicago Statement despite internal disagreements. In particular, English Department Chairman Will Gleason said that Princeton should instead develop its own rules and regulations. “We should develop that ourselves rather than adopt someone else’s language, however much we might admire [it],” Gleason said in an article from The Daily Princetonian.

Other university officials have stated that adopting the University of Chicago’s statement has helped increase student awareness and dialogue about what constitutes free speech. Purdue University adopted the Chicago Statement last May.

“People are interested in this whole concept about what is free speech and what does it mean to us. I think people are looking for answers. ‘What can I do, what can’t I do?’ People want clarity in their lives,” Purdue University’s Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Tom Dooley said in a December article from The Purdue Exponent.

In addition, the University of Wisconsin (UW)’s Badger Herald reported this past January that several UW board members and professors revised the University’s own freedom of expression principles last spring using UChicago’s new statement

The positive reception of the statement elsewhere has not ended arguments about the boundaries of acceptable speech on University of Chicago’s campus. In the wake of the statement’s publication, a Maroon editorial objected to the absence of a provision confronting hate speech, prompting its own backlash online. The issue was most recently contested when audience members interrupted and ended talks by a pair of controversial speakers on campus.

Warren, the co-drafter of the Chicago Statement, applied its guidelines to the February 17 Institute of Politics (IOP) event in which Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was driven out by a Black Lives Matter protest. He raised the issue of extending invitations to public figures with controversial opinions or strategies for addressing societal issues.

“A similar occurrence happened at Williams College, where the College’s president disinvited mathematician John Derbyshire after discovering that a student group had invited him [Derbyshire] despite the fact that he held racist opinions and arguments. Given the bigger latitude of our Statement on Freedom of Expression, [the statement] would not would not have allowed President Zimmer to disinvite a racist public figure or someone with controversial views and actions. That being said, that does not mean we cannot criticize the speech,” Warren said.

Warren argues that extending an invitation to such figures in the first place reveals people’s stances on an issue.

“There really is no neutrality on the matter, and the University does not have to be a neutral body. In fact, it shouldn’t. It’s not a question of popularity, it’s whether it’s right or wrong,” he said.