A great deal has been said about last Thursday’s Harris School–sponsored lecture by former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert. The talk was slated to last 20 minutes; due to repeated interruptions by audience members, it stretched for more than 90. These disruptions, which ranged from allegations of war crimes in Gaza and Lebanon to personal attacks on the prime minister, ultimately resulted in some 25 protesters being pulled from the audience. By all accounts, the talk was defined not by what Olmert said but by his effective inability to say very much at all.
The Editorial Board weighed in on the controversy in today’s issue:
Olmert’s actions, and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in general, engender fierce emotions on all sides of the issues. But surely any effort aimed at righting injustices and resolving conflicts must begin with an open and honest dialogue. A major role of academic institutions is to provide forums for such exchanges. Students who oppose Olmert’s opinions can and should speak up; what they should not do, however, is disrupt a planned speech with tactics designed to make dialogue impossible.
Now, President Zimmer and Provost Rosenbaum have taken a stand of their own in an e-mail to all faculty, staff, and students:
To: Faculty, Staff, and Students
From: President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum
Date: October 20, 2009
Re: Freedom of Expression and Protest
At the height of attacks on the University of Chicago in the 1930s as a “hot bed of radicalism” by politicians and the national press, President Robert Maynard Hutchins responded by proclaiming our core values, asserting that “… free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, that without it they cease to be universities, and that such inquiry and hence universities are more necessary now than ever.”
This culture of inquiry and informed argument is a cherished hallmark of the University of Chicago. It flourishes in an environment where what matters is what you say, not who you are. We believe that in the open clash of ideas, progress is made and understanding emerges. But like any cultural conviction, an environment of informed argument and critical inquiry must be nurtured. It creates for the faculty, students, and staff of the University of Chicago the fundamental right and responsibility to foster and protect rational discourse in an environment marked both by the rigorous challenge of ideas and by tolerance for the expression of multiple viewpoints.
Speakers invited by faculty and students should have every expectation to be treated in accord with the highest ideals of the University. There is also a reciprocal obligation to hear from those who wish to express dissent, but not in a manner that prevents the speech of those with whom they disagree. At institutions without our strong tradition of free inquiry, speakers have been prevented from freely presenting their ideas. We had such an event occur on our campus last week. It is in this context and given the particular history of our institution that the repeated disruption by audience members of the views presented by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking at the invitation of the Harris School, is disturbing. Any stifling of debate runs counter to the primary values of the University of Chicago and to our long-standing position as an exemplar of academic freedom. It is a rupture of the sort that is rare on our campus because of our shared views of the importance of inquiry, discourse, and informed argument.
In the tradition of President Hutchins, his predecessors and successors, we remain committed to fostering an arena for the free expression of ideas because it is the essence of our existence as a great University, and we as a community will continue to defend the rights to free expression on our campus.
Them’s fightin’ words, President.