David Axelrod on Whiteboard Backlash

By David Axelrod

A recent post from the Institute of Politics has led to the unacceptable harassment of a student whose views it aired and opened a new debate about free expression on campus. 

The post is part of the IOP’s “Why I Vote” campaign, in which students are invited to write a few words about their motivation for voting in the upcoming election, which we then share. It showed a UChicago student holding a whiteboard with the message: “I vote because: coronavirus won’t destroy America, but socialism will.” 

The post predictably stirred a strong reaction. 

Coronavirus is a scourge that has claimed lives and, sad to say, will probably claim many more before it is subdued by science. While the author is right when she proclaims that the virus will “not destroy America,” the minimization of it was offensive to those who have loved ones here and overseas who have been infected or whose lives have been disrupted—which may very quickly include all of us—in large ways and small. 

That said, I suspect it was not the first clause about the virus that caused such a sharp response. It was the second: “…but socialism will.” 

Just as a thought experiment, let’s consider what the reaction would have been if this student’s whiteboard had read: “I vote because coronavirus won’t destroy America but hate will!” Would that message have provoked the same outcry on campus? I strongly suspect the answer is no. 

The purpose of the “Why I Vote” campaign is for students to share what would prompt them to vote. This was one student’s answer. As we have made clear to all who have inquired since its posting, she was entitled to express it, without the ugly and inappropriate online harassment that followed. We strongly condemn and deeply regret the threatening comments this student has received in reaction to the post. 

Our obligation at the IOP was to post her point of view along with the scores of other responses we have shared, not censor out provocative statements that aren’t in keeping with majority views on campus. 

Of course there are limits. Hate speech, for one. This plainly was not that. 

Standing up for free expression in fraught and polarized times is difficult and sometimes deeply uncomfortable. Yet it is precisely in moments like this that it is most important that we hold fast to this principle. Because if this student’s freedom of expression is abridged today, everyone’s is at risk. 

We welcome any student who has a point of view on this or any post to respond but to do so without personally impugning or threatening its author. At the same time, any student who offers an intentionally provocative idea can expect a strong response. 

The IOP has a strong record of bringing speakers and visiting fellows from left, right, and center to campus to rigorously discuss and debate different visions for our country. The IOP cannot and should not refuse to air a controversial view simply because many, or even the majority, object to it. 

David Axelrod is the founding director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.