University Holds Conference on Freedom of Expression

Some stressed the need to change the narrative in the press that today’s students are unable to handle confrontation with ideas that they do not agree with.

By Anne Nazzaro

The University hosted a closed-door discussion this weekend on freedom of expression on college campuses and how administrations should respond to disruptive protest at speaking events.

Sixty-six presidents and provosts from a range of institutions were in attendance, according to an Inside Higher Ed article on the discussion.

University Provost Daniel Diermeier said in the Inside Higher Ed article that the other participants were in “strong agreement” on their need to protect the ideals of free speech. “Those principles apply irrespective of the ideological perspective of the speakers," he said.

The University of Chicago has released multiple statements, including letters to the incoming classes of 2020 and 2021, reaffirming the University’s commitment to protecting free speech regardless of the controversy of the ideas being expressed.

They convened after several weeks of incidents involving protesters shouting down speakers or blocking them from talking on college campuses, including at Columbia University, the University of Michigan, and Whittier College.

These events follow a trend in recent years of protesters, not all of whom are affiliated with universities, shutting down university speaking events where the speaker is controversial or where the protesters do not agree with the speaker.

Several similar events were shut down by protesters in early 2016 at the University of Chicago. In February 2016, Black Lives Matter Chicago protesters shouted down Anita Alvarez, the former Cook County state’s attorney, at an event hosted by the Institute of Politics. Alvarez left the stage 20 minutes into the event. Soon after, Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist who opposes the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement, spoke at International House. Tensions rose after one audience member challenged Eid on a question, and police had to intervene and end the event.

According to Inside Higher Ed, some educators stressed the need to change the narrative in the press that today’s students are unable to handle confrontation with ideas that they do not agree with or are not comfortable with. They also cited the need to educate today’s students on the importance of free speech.

“Many of us thought there is a need for more education of our student body, for them to have a better understanding of why the First Amendment is so important,” said Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington, to Inside Higher Ed. “They have seen the First Amendment used to defend racism, sexism, etc. They don’t have the real understanding that the First Amendment has been used to defend minority views.”

The Maroon reported in August on the University’s plans for the free speech conference. According to documents uncovered by the paper, former president Barack Obama was invited to be the keynote speaker, though the Inside Higher Ed article does not note his presence at the conference.