The Editorial Board Must Endorse Free Speech

By Jerry Coyne

To The Maroon,

Amidst the fracas about Steve Bannon’s upcoming talk, the Edmund Burke Society’s now-canceled debate on immigration, and similar controversies, one issue connects them all: free speech.  It is arguably the most important philosophical question on American campuses, and certainly at the University of Chicago. And yet The Maroon’s Editorial Board, despite its mission to speak out about issues relevant to campus, has been silent on free speech.

That silence is deafening. For one thing, The Maroon is the newspaper of a campus whose administration has the least restrictive free speech policy in America. And while The Maroon is editorially independent of the University—that is, it has no obligation to agree with all of the administration’s stances—it is nevertheless a newspaper whose very existence depends on being able to publish whatever it likes.

University policy mirrors the free speech provision of the First Amendment as interpreted by the courts, meaning that the government—and in our case the University administration—will not censor any speech unless it is libelous, causes harassment in the workplace, or creates a clear and present danger of violence.

The policy is in place for a reason: The ability to say what you want, no matter how odious such speech can seem to others, is vital to democracy and to the college experience. After all, this is a place where students should learn to argue, to think, and to refine their views. To do that, they must be exposed to all manner of views, including those from which they instinctively recoil.

Why? John Stuart Mill explained in his classic essay On Liberty. First, you might learn something. That “something” might be constructive—an opinion you might have dismissed without a careful hearing—or you might simply learn what’s wrong with it, and thus become better able to defend your own views. As Mill argued, you can hardly have confidence in your own opinion unless you’ve heard and met the arguments of the other side. If, like most students and faculty, you lean toward liberalism, Bannon’s appearance might fill either of those needs.  And if nothing else, letting bigots speak is the best way to “out” them, discovering what they really think.

Free speech deserves unreserved support for two other reasons. First, nobody, including The Maroon, should have the right to determine what speech should be free and what speech should be censored. Just as your paper wouldn’t trust anyone to determine what you could print, so nobody on this campus should determine what others should be able to hear. 

Further, censoring speech won’t make it go away. Will Steve Bannon’s views disappear if he doesn’t express them on this campus? Think again. Free speech is the best disinfectant.

The University has wisely decided that nobody should be able to censor speech on this campus and has widely publicized that policy. It’s time that The Maroon also weighs in on this issue. The only sensible position is a broad endorsement of free speech and condemnation of those who would ban or de-platform speakers.

—Jerry Coyne, professor emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolution