Letter: Zimmer Should Engage Faculty on Free Speech Issues

By Letter to the Editor

In mid-February of this year, the officers of the University of Chicago’s American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Advocacy Chapter wrote to President Robert J. Zimmer, inviting him to a faculty conversation on the University’s policy on freedom of expression. We remarked that in the three years since the promulgation of the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression (commonly known as the Stone Report) in 2015, President Zimmer had made many public appearances around the country addressing the topic, yet he had not held an open forum on freedom of expression with the University’s faculty. Instead, the report was presented to the Council of the University Senate, followed by a brief discussion in the Council, after which it took on the force of policy. Noting that recent events on campus suggest that this policy has not been uniformly embraced across campus, we asked President Zimmer to participate in a public discussion with faculty on campus who have some expertise on this or related issues.

President Zimmer responded to our invitation by scheduling a series of small group meetings with faculty. Although some of us have agreed to attend these meetings, we want to stress, as we did in our response to President Zimmer, that these relatively small, invitation-only private meetings cannot substitute a public forum. A public forum would allow what are now being hailed as the “Chicago Principles” to be discussed and debated by those who are charged with enacting and upholding them.

There are many faculty members on campus who have thought about and researched this subject, and there is a wide range of opinions on freedom of speech, especially within the current social and political context in which this issue is being raised. We believe that President Zimmer should engage in open and public conversation with such faculty.

Indeed, it is our belief in the importance of freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry that leads us to call for addressing these issues in a public venue, in which our colleagues can hear and express what we expect to be a variety of views on what freedom of expression really means. 

Among the issues that have emerged in wake of the promulgation of the Stone Report that may come up in a public discussion include:

• The administration’s refusal to recognize the Graduate Students Union, even though this organized association of graduate student workers was overwhelmingly supported by the graduate student body in free and open elections. The administration itself encouraged the students to vote and subsequently rejected the outcome because it did not suit them. What is the point of free speech if the associated democratic process is suppressed?

• The historical relationship between the struggle for free speech and the labor movement, as elucidated in the work of Laura Weinrib, a faculty member at the University of Chicago Law School. Some might argue that the only way to protect access to and dissemination of free speech from being dominated by the ultra-wealthy owners of the media is to have a strong union movement.

 • The question of whether the free speech principle applies to academic and non-academic members of the University central administration.  For example, were administrators entitled to openly voice their support of graduate student unionization, or even simply support the call to respect the outcome of the union vote? Could a Dean of Students in the University or a Vice President for Civic Engagement come out in support without losing their job? We heard not one dissenting voice from 5801 South Ellis.

• The tension between offering a stage at the University to white supremacists and racists, while claiming to promote an inclusive environment at the same time.

• The fact that in the current political situation in the U.S., “free speech” has become a slogan used by the right wing to weaken unions through “right to work” campaigns, weaken the democratic process through the Citizens United ruling, and weaken the more progressive elements in the academic community. Currently, Governor Bruce Rauner and the Koch Brothers-funded group Americans for Prosperity are supporting a case before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn on free speech grounds the longstanding practice of allowing public sector unions to charge all workers a “fair share fee” for benefits they receive as a result of union-negotiated contracts. University of Chicago Trustee Kenneth C. Griffin, a major supporter of both Governor Rauner and the Koch Institute, has recently explained his $125 million purchase of the naming rights to the University of Chicago Economics Department by exclaiming:

“I am proud to support the extraordinary work of the Economics Department and a university so fundamentally committed to free expression, fierce debate, and intellectual pursuit. The culture of rigorous questioning and open discourse at the University of Chicago has opened minds to ideas that have changed the world.”

This is the same Ken Griffin who once complained that wealthy people do not have sufficient influence over public affairs. Similar statements lauding free speech can be found on the Koch Institute website, while the Koch brothers simultaneously spend millions supporting politicians who are doing everything in their power to suppress the vote among minorities and poor people. So, at the very least, one would want to think about the social and political context in which President Zimmer’s statements are being made.

Yali Amit and the officers of the University of Chicago Advocacy Chapter of the AAUP:

Anton Ford

Elaine Hadley

Denis Hirschfeldt

Willemien Otten

Kenneth W. Warren