Panelists Discuss Free Speech at Teach-in

“Academic freedom as a term today is being misused.”

By Emma Dyer, Co-Editor-in-Chief ('20-'21)

Several campus organizations hosted a teach-in on Friday in response to campus discussions about academic freedom. The teach-in, titled “Beyond Free Speech,” was held at the University Church Sanctuary Café and consisted of three panel discussions on the ideology of free speech, legally protected free speech rights, and the costs of public expression.

The event was jointly hosted by the Center for the Study of Gender And Sexuality, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, And Culture (CSRPC), the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory, the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, and the School Of Social Service Administration. 

In the day’s first panel included discussion with Associate Professor in Philosophy Anton Ford, Professor of Law Laura Weinrib, and Assistant Professor in the Department of English Zach Samalin. Ford noted the difference between the use of the term “academic freedom” at its inception in 1915 versus today. According to Ford, “academic freedom” originally referred  to a protection for faculty to engage in research free from interference by UChicago trustees. However, the term has evolved into a catch-all for anything related to freedom of expression at the UChicago.

“Academic freedom as a term today is being misused,” Weinrib said. Weinrib responded by suggesting academic freedom is used to rationalize the idea that all speech can have a platform because of academic principle. “That’s what academia is about—proving that some ideas are not as valid as others,” Weinrib said.

Given the opportunity to directly address Luigi Zingales’ invitation to Steve Bannon to speak at the university, Assistant English professor Zach Samalin said, “Inviting Bannon is an embarrassment,” and called the invitation an example of the university “hiding behind the veil of academic freedom.”

Discussion moved to the legal protections one has and does not have in regards to free speech. Panelists included Molly Armour, a Chicago criminal defense attorney, and Steve Saltzman, a criminal defense attorney and editor of the Civil Rights Litigation and Attorney Fees Annual Handbook and a criminal defense attorney. “No right is absolute, there are restrictions,” Armour said.

Armour stressed that all government freedom of speech protections are protections from the state. “This is not a restriction on private actions,” Armour said. “When there is one protester saying one thing at a protest, and there's another saying another and one of them over shouts or shuts down the other, that is actually not a First Amendment violation.”

Saltzman, however, acknowledged that at times the University’s actions may make them a state in legal terms. “The University police often acts as CPD, turning it into a state,” Saltzman said. This designation means there may be circumstances where actions on campus are subject to legal standards rather than campus policies.

Saltzman went over the University’s definition of disruptive conduct, which is found in Statute 21 of the UChicago Trustees Restated Articles of Incorporation. Statute 21 contains vague language, such as a passage which forbids any activity “that is likely to or does deprive others of the benefit or enjoyment of the activity or facility.” After navigating through the conditions associated with free speech on campus, Saltzman said that students found in violation of the University’s free speech or demonstration policies should seek professional legal consultation.

In the final panel, discussion shifted towards the costs of free speech. Panelists highlighted the strength in solidarity for each other’s causes and the need to work together as activists. However, such an ideal is difficult to accomplish in practice, said fourth-year anthropology graduate student Tanima Sharma. “Solidarity can be so messy and you have to find ways not to get bogged down and encompassed by it,” she said.

After panel discussion, attendees were invited to join U of C Resists—a coalition of UChicago students, staff, faculty, and neighbors organizing to oppose Trump’s agenda—to protest Bannon’s invitation on the Booth steps. About forty protesters joined, chanting, “No hate, no fear, Nazi boys aren’t welcome here.”

“We see through the obfuscation,” said Graduate Students United member Claudio Gonzáles. “Steve Bannon’s invitation is a symptom of something else.” Gonzáles believes the university’s handling of outcry against Bannon’s invitations is unacceptable and analogous to their handling of the Graduate Students United motion for graduate student unionization.

Protesters rallied to this declaration, shouting, “Black, Latino, Arab, Asian, and White. Unite, unite, unite and fight the Right.”