May 30, 2014

Letter: Students stand by the IOP

“How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most.”—American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Hate Speech on Campus

Last week at the Institute of Politics (IOP), Dan Savage was a guest at a seminar hosted by Spring Fellow Ana Marie Cox. Savage is a writer and advocate on a variety of issues, particularly pertaining to LGBTQ youth with his It Gets Better project. The goal of this project is to provide support to youths who are feeling threatened and try to stop the horror that is suicide in marginalized LGBTQcommunities. Given Cox’s seminar series on social media, Savage was invited to share his experience in using media to create an effective global campaign.

Despite this activism, Savage is a particularly controversial figure on both the right and the left. By coining a unique definition of the word “Santorum” and complaining about the Bible, Savage has ruffled many feathers, particularly those of Christian conservatives. Some of the remarks and stances he has taken with regards to reclaiming words have also led to conflict within the LGBTQ community. When Savage came to campus, there were students who were excited to learn, to listen, and also to be challenged.

Savage and Cox led a seminar that broached many subjects that could be uncomfortable to students. They discussed issues that could have offended the sensibilities of those across the political spectrum, but did so in a manner that was clearly oriented toward learning. One of the students present was upset by the usage of the T-slur in a discussion about empowerment and reappropriation of words. At no point was the T-slur directed at a student; the word was only used in the context of discussing the power and reappropriation of language.

Immediately after the student became upset, a member of the Institute of Politics Student Executive Board, a member of the IOP staff, and the Dean on Call met with the student. That night, the IOP reached out to the concerned students and the next day they reached out to the Office of LGBTQ Student Life to set up a meeting. On the day following the incident, the Friday leading up to Memorial Day, the Institute staff met with the concerned students, heard their complaints, and agreed to discuss the issue in depth over the weekend before convening on Tuesday. On that day, at the third meeting in as many business days, the Institute expressed that while they wanted to ensure people felt safe and comfortable at events, they would not apologize for the controversial views or comments expressed by the guest. Without agreeing or disagreeing with his viewpoints, they believed they had acted appropriately in not intervening.

Before the incident even occurred the IOP talked to students from Queers United in Power(QUIP), UChicago’s new LGBTQ activism student group, as well as with other students who raised concerns about Dan Savage’s presence at the Institute of Politics. Following the incident, Ana Marie Cox made herself available to talk to any and all students who wanted to follow up with her after the seminar. We also know that the Institute of Politics is working to ensure they are sensitive to potential issues that could arise from events. As we can attest from working closely with them for the past year and a half, the staff at the Institute of Politics has demonstrated with both word and deed their commitment to ensuring that the IOP is a place where students feel welcome.

Following a petition put forth by some of the offended students, the IOP released a statement explaining their position. Part of the statement read:

“…views will be expressed on occasion with which some will strongly disagree or even find deeply offensive. But we cannot remain true to our mission and be in the business of filtering guests or policing their statements to ensure they will always meet with broad agreement and approval and will not offend.”

All of us support the Institute of Politics because in our experience the IOP strives to represent a variety of viewpoints from across the political spectrum. The staff and students work all year to bring speakers with a diversity of ideas, programs, and backgrounds to speak on campus. But conflict and contention cannot be resolved without conversation. We think that in not endorsing any of the views of the speakers that it brings to campus, but enabling them to facilitate conversation, the Institute of Politics provides an invaluable service to the University of Chicago. 

—Nicole Bitler, PhD Student

Yangyang Cheng, PhD Student

Chris Huff, SSA

 Anastasia Kaiser, ‘15

Shayan Karbassi,  ‘14

Stephen Landry, ‘17 

Sarah Morell, ‘15 

Kevin Shi, ‘16 

Dan Simon, ‘17 

Liz Stark,  ‘17

Robert Vanneste,  Harris

Samantha Weiss,  ‘17

Lauren Weinberg,  ‘17

Eric Wessan,  ‘14