University Hosts Student-Led Free Speech Conference

22 students from 14 colleges and universities across the country and University experts in law and politics participated in the conference, which was held late last month.

By Jorge Ernesto Clavo Abbass, Contributor

The University hosted a nonpartisan student-led conference late last month on freedom of expression on college campuses. 22 students from 14 colleges and universities across the country and University experts in law and politics participated. Student attendees created a Statement of Principles on campus free speech by the end of the conference. 

The conference was organized by third-year Matthew Foldi, president of UChicago College Republicans, and the Statement of Principles was developed by a student group created at the conference, Students for Free Expression. The statement was created in response to perceived attempts by students and faculty nationwide to limit free speech. 

“The only way to achieve [free and open discourse] is by cultivating a culture where all are free to communicate without fear of censorship or intimidation. While some speech may be objectionable and even hateful, constitutionally protected speech ought to be held and enforced as the standard and must not be infringed upon,” the statement reads. 

According to Foldi and University coverage, organizers were careful to select individuals from public and private universities representing a variety of political ideologies and academic disciplines.  

“I only knew about half of the attendees on a personal basis before the conference. The ideologies that I do know range from liberal to conservative, and everything in between. That was incredibly, incredibly important to us while we put together this event,” Foldi said. 

According to social media profiles and online media coverage, a significant portion of the attendees are in the leadership of College Republicans at each of their respective universities. Fewer than five of the attendees are publicly affiliated with the Democratic Party. 

The conference was not publicized to the campus community, nor was it open to the public. After the conference ended it was covered by Inside Higher Ed and Breitbart

Anton Ford, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Philosophy, commented on the lack of publicly available information regarding the conference.  

“The University’s press release gives the distinct impression that the point of the conference was advocacy, not inquiry. If that is a false appearance, the administration could easily dispel it by revealing more about the conference…. Of all the students at all the schools in this country, how were those ‘22 students from 14 schools’ known to the conference organizers, and through what channels were they contacted? Did the University of Chicago foot the whole bill?” Ford said. 

Foldi argued that the lack of publicity was done in the sake of fairness in the weight of different perspectives. 

“We wanted to keep to the ratio of one student per school as much as possible because we didn't want to have any school's perspective dominate the conference, especially since each attendee had an equal vote when it came to drafting the Statement of Principles,” he said. 

The conference was entirely funded by the University administration, according to Foldi, who explained that the Office of the Dean of Students in the University supported the event by covering the costs of food, lodging, and travel for attendees, as well as securing guest speakers. 

University spokesperson Jeremy Manier noted that “Campus and Student Life [CSL] has been actively developing ways of exposing students to the University’s values around free expression…. When students raised the idea of working with peers from other colleges and universities on this issue, CSL used one-time discretionary funds to help support travel costs to Chicago.” 

Manier did not elaborate on exactly how much money was allocated to the event. Foldi did not offer concrete figures but stated that the allocated budget limited the number of students who could attend. 

Speakers at the event included David Axelrod, director of the Institute of Politics (IOP) at the University, and Law School professors Geoffrey Stone and Randal Picker.  

Foldi told The Maroon that Dean of Students in the College John “Jay” Ellison also attended and spoke at the event. The University news office did not list him as a speaker in its coverage of the event. 

Matthew Jaffe, director of communications for the IOP, declined to comment on Axelrod’s role in the conference, instead directing inquiries to the University news office. The University did not answer questions regarding Axelrod’s presence at the event. 

Looking ahead, Students for Free Expression seeks to continue to promote the Statement of Principles drafted and signed at the conference.  

“We launched a Facebook page…and plan on having students as representatives on campuses around the country to help us with spreading the word, and reaching out to students, alumni, and faculty to ensure that we are reaching out to as many people as possible,” he said. 

Foldi stated that in the days following the release of the statement online, hundreds of people signed it in support. As of May 11, 909 individuals have signed the statement online. His group believes that support should also come from student governments and organizations all over the country, and he hopes to see more campus representatives join the movement over the coming year. 

Students for Free Speech does not hold official RSO status but was able to obtain University support because of its shared perspective of free expression with the administration, Foldi said. 

“UChicago is incredibly committed to practicing what it preaches on free speech and expression; this conference was yet another manifestation of our leadership on this issue,” Foldi said. 

Foldi believes that this conference is an example of how the left and the right can come together to talk about issues which can affect everyone. 

“One thing that was constantly stressed during the planning of the conference and during the event itself was that this is an incredibly nonpartisan event. I sat next to David Axelrod during our meeting with him and we…[were] in complete agreement on this. Professor Stone is also a staunch liberal, and yet we are on the same page on this issue…. We’ve seen Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Robert Reich, and others defend Ann Coulter’s right to speak [at the University of California,] Berkeley, even though they are all quick to highlight that they don’t agree with anything she has to say.” 

Foldi countered the argument that University support of an event like this goes against the “neutrality of the university as an institution,” per the Kalven Report. 

“I wouldn't say that at all. The Stone Report is our official policy, and this conference was in complete accordance with its values. This issue is at the core of any education, so it is logical that UChicago of all schools would be willing to host an event like this. My only lamentation is that, like with Dean Ellison's letter, other schools weren’t willing to step up and take the initiative themselves,” he said.