LETTERS

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May 5, 2009

More free speech needed

A recent report reveals shortcomings in the U of C's approach to free speech.

Last week the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit that defends free speech rights at America’s colleges and universities, published a report that chronicled the U of C’s policies that “gravely infringe upon free speech.” Everyone should read the report for themselves on the FIRE’s website at thefire.org.

In response, the University is having a discussion on May 8, from noon until 1:30 p.m. in Social Sciences 122 to discuss the role of free speech on campus. While I am sure this discussion will be intellectually stimulating, I doubt that it will delve into the specific instances where the University has failed to uphold free speech on campus, despite its own promises to “not attempt to shield people from ideas that they may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive,” as the student manual says.

These incidents appear on both an abstract policy level and on an as-applied level. On a pure policy level, the University has a Bias Response Team (the “Bias Police”) ready to respond to bias incidents and hate speech, which is defined as “bigoted and prejudiced language.” While we may all want to believe that we could never use prejudiced language, this policy doesn’t care about what you objectively feel, or even what a reasonable person would think, but rather construes your language in the worst way possible.

Don’t believe me? In 2006, a student wrote a “prejudiced” joke on a whiteboard in Hitchcock. While even the “victim” took it as a joke, the University kicked the offending student out of housing. Ana Vazquez, the director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs, said in response, “Even though the students may not have been offended by the remarks or written them seriously, the administration must still react.” (“Housing reacts to Hitchcock incident,” Maroon 2/6/2006). Despite a clear policy that states the University will not get involved even if a person finds something offensive, the University decided to get involved even though no one took offense. Unfortunately, this incident is not an isolated one. The University regularly ignores its own written policies because students don’t know their rights and because of the non-transparent nature of the disciplinary proceedings against students. In its misguided quest to coddle its students, it has stamped on students’ rights and significantly harmed its own commitment to what makes the University of Chicago so great––the freedom to speak one’s mind.

Christian Brockman

Class of 2008