January 9, 2015

University releases committee’s statement on free expression

On Tuesday, the Committee on Freedom of Expression (FOE) issued its report, which stated that it is imperative for the University to defend the expression of ideas, even at the fringes of unpopular or offensive opinions. The FOE is a seven-person faculty group organized in July to articulate the University of Chicago’s institutional values in a formal statement.

The report, which was distributed by President Robert J. Zimmer to the student body via e-mail, stated that the University must be an environment in which all “ideas and opinions” may be expressed, “however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.” The report was compiled by the FOE over a period of six months, and was released in the wake of several recent controversies related to on-campus race relations.

While the statement did indicate that the University would stand behind expressions of unpopular opinions, it also acknowledged that certain forms of speech exist that go against the University’s mission as an institution.

“The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University,” the statement read.

According to Amanda Woodward, a member of the FOE and a professor of psychology at the University, the purpose of the report was to issue an affirmation of the University’s values, which can then be used as a reference by the Administration in evaluating cases involving questions of free expression.

“We were not attempting to create a statement of values that did not already exist as a part of our institutional culture. The points outlined in the document are a statement of principle. It’s not a manual for how the University should respond to particular cases, but rather a tool which it can apply when working out what to do in a difficult situation,” Woodward said.

The document does, however, leave an open-ended question of what, exactly, constitute “ideas” and “opinions,”—the two classifications of speech covered by the statement. According to Geoffrey Stone, chair of the FOE and a professor of law at the University, to define those terms is outside the intend scope of the statement.

“We actually played the game of imagining lots of hypotheticals [of cases involving freedom of expression] and trying to figure out how we would resolve those issues, but that’s not what we were asked to do,” Stone said.

However, Stone acknowledged that a gray area clearly exists in the hypothetical cases that the FOE broached.

“There might be some situations in which I might think an action in question fits within the concept of an idea that someone else does not think fits within the concept of an idea, so there will be cases where interpretations or applications are necessary. The word ‘idea,’ to me, at the margins, is ambiguous,” he said.

Students responded to the FOE statement with suggestions as to what the “offensive or disagreeable” ideas mentioned in the statement might manifest as in terms of on-campus issues. Fourth-year Rachel Katz said in an e-mail that the foremost concerns would be incidents in which issues of individual conceptions of “identity” are called into question.

“Persons of this generation seem to be particularly concerned with “identity”... not only particular descriptions of ‘identity groups,’ especially as understood traditionally, but perhaps, more substantially, claims that suggest reduced stock be placed in the protection of ‘identity’ as such. So, challenges to the emotional orientation underlying ‘identity politics’ might constitute ideas ‘unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive’ to members of the University community,” Katz said.

Third-year Ken Armstrong agreed with Katz, and cited an incident which took place last May at the Institute of Politics (IOP) in which some students alleged that Dan Savage, a guest speaker and columnist who focuses on LGBT issues, had used language that was derogatory toward transsexuals.

“The University does a service of bringing guys [like Savage] to campus, so we as students can determine what is valid, and what is bullshit. We’re mature enough,” Armstrong said.

In the e-mail in which he sent the report to the student body, Zimmer said that the University will hold an official forum in February for students and faculty to discuss their thoughts on the FOE report.