February 21, 2015

Students debate limits of free speech on campuses

The Chicago Debate Society hosted its Winter Quarter Showcase Debate on Thursday regarding whether free speech restrictions should be implemented in universities.

Third-year and president of the society Jing Chai and fourth-year David Peterson argued in favor of the claim that “universities ought to prioritize the well-being of students over traditional free speech rights,” while third-year Michelle Jiang and fifth-year Chris Riehle opposed the claim. “Rights are social and legal constructs...determined by the people who frame the system of a particular society, usually the dominant groups,” Peterson said. He argued that this has allowed them to “use discourse that drowns out minority voices” and “legitimates outright racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia in speech.”

“The University has some sort of moral obligation to protect the people who come here from physical harm,” he continued. “We...tell you that psychological harm is fundamentally analogous to physical harm in that it prevents you from self-actualizing.”

Jiang and Riehle emphasized the difficulty of quantifying the severity of psychological harm and of “implementing such restrictions realistically.” Jiang also drew attention to the consequences of restricting discourse: “The fact they shut down discourse by always saying there's a right side is fundamentally problematic,” she said.

Jiang and Riehle then addressed the potential danger of limiting free speech in universities, which are intended to prepare students for life after college; they argued that the “real world” does not necessarily operate under these limitations.

Following this portion of the debate, several members of the Debate Society made floor speeches in favor of one side or the other, and the debate was concluded with closing arguments from both sides.

This structure is typical of Parliamentary Debate; the Chicago Debate Society is a part of the American Parliamentary Debate Association and is one of the oldest RSOs on campus. The team competes in tournaments nearly every weekend at colleges and universities around the country and is usually quite successful, winning several awards each year and often qualifying for the National Championship.

The debate topic itself is particularly pertinent in light of debates on free speech both among governments throughout the world and on college campuses across the country, including multiple discussions surrounding free speech rights here at UChicago. Recently, shootings at a free speech debate in Copenhagen and at the office of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in France have sparked such questions, particularly in America and Europe.

Meanwhile, in fall quarter, the University released a statement on diversity and inclusion, and in January it released its “Acceptable Use Policy for Information Technology.” The first statement affirmed the University’s protection of the school’s community against discrimination and harassment and resolved to create a Diversity Advisory Council to approach “minority issues.” The Acceptable Use Policy was intended to ensure absolute free speech rights. Thus the concerns of both those in favor of limiting of free speech and their opponents have been at play recently in the UChicago community.