May 8, 2009

A red scare

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s report sounds a false alarm on the University’s approach to freedom of speech.

Last week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) issued a highly critical report on the state of free speech at the U of C. A watchdog organization with a history of legal action on behalf of students and professors, FIRE put the U of C, along with a host of peer institutions, on “Red Alert” for having policies that they alleged “gravely infringe upon free speech.”Three days later, Provost Thomas Rosenbaum e-mailed students announcing a forum, to be held today, to discuss the role of free speech at the U of C. While Rosenbaum denied any connection, the timing seems to indicate a clear response by the administration. FIRE’s report, however, sounds a false alarm on the University’s approach to freedom of speech.Most notably, the report draws attention to the University’s handling of “bias incidents” and posting policies for residence halls. FIRE contends that the U of C’s Bias Response Team, which addresses incidents of perceived bias, would punish students for simply saying something that was taken the wrong way. But such an allegation fundamentally misreads the policy. The Response Team exists to investigate such incidents of perceived bias, to see if there’s actually an actionable offense. Given that bias is inherently subjective, due diligence from administrators is the best way to handle such cases.Additionally, FIRE is indignant that the University would attempt to restrict obscene speech in its residence halls, calling it a clear violation of the First Amendment. This argument misreads the Constitution, which applies only to the state, not private institutions like the U of C. Moreover, in managing the dorms, the U of C’s primary responsibility is to maintain an environment that’s welcoming to all students. Imperfect decisions will likely be made, but in order to foster debate on the rest of campus, students must be free from intimidation in their dorms. A reasonably enforced policy about offensive materials in dorms accomplishes this.The report puts the U of C in not-so-exclusive company: All 14 Illinois institutions that have been profiled by FIRE have received Red Alerts. But FIRE’s over-the-top announcement does provide the University with an opportunity. As the organization points out, for example, the U of C’s policy of requiring 48 hours of advance notice to stage a protest fails to take into account the fact that many protests are spontaneous events. Free speech is a perpetually relevant topic on campus, and any excuse to bring students and administrators together in conversation is a positive development.

The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and two additional Editorial Board members.