University of Chicago Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression

The Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago has issued a report explaining why a university must have “lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation.”

The Committee was apparently created partly in response to a petition by a group of University of Chicago students, asking that the Institute of Politics ban “slurs and hate speech” after Dan Savage discussed the slur “tranny” in a speech on campus.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) strongly endorsed the statement, and I share that viewpoint, although I have a few criticisms of the report.

Pretending that the University of Chicago only has a long history of freedom and openness, and ignoring the dark side of its repression, really isn’t historically accurate. And some of the wording offered in this report as exceptions to free speech is very vague: I don’t know what “directly incompatible with the functioning of the University” is, nor am I sure when one “unjustifiably” invades privacy. As for “does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University,” I’m very suspicious of any “disrupt” standard. Disruptions are not necessarily a bad thing, nor are they always acts of repression. For example, in the 1990s, the U of C banned signs (and even a flag worn as a cape) by protestors at events, and threw people out if they stood up and turned their backs on a speaker, all of it using a “disruption” standard. But none of these acts of rudeness are examples of shouting down a speaker or suppressing speech. The University, not the protesters, was guilty of repression in those cases.

The committee also endorses restricting speech if it “falsely defames a specific individual.” I don’t think a University should get into the business of deciding civil litigation, which is what defamation is. After all, the University doesn’t punish students and faculty for being the losers in civil lawsuits. Why should defamation be any different from other civil litigation? There’s a real danger if a University declares that defamation is banned and then gets to define its own sense of what defamation means. If a student writes a tweet falsely accusing a politician of committing various crimes, should a university be punishing them for it? Even if it meets the legal standard of defamation, I would argue “no.”

In general, I think it’s a very good report, and much better than the existing policies at the University of Chicago, which I hope would be re-evaluated in light of the report. And my biggest concern about this report is that it may be ignored, when it should provide the basis for an ongoing campus discussion and the improvement of some flawed campus policies on free speech.

It’s not enough to simply reject calls for greater censorship; the University of Chicago and other colleges need to scrutinize the flaws in existing policies that may be used to restrict freedom of speech. For example, the U of C policies regulate “abusive conduct” which I also think is too vague of a standard. There’s also a ban on “personal abuse” in dorms, as well as “obscene” or “offensive” language on posters. Footnote 10 of the U of C information technology policy indicates that the university can ban “ad hominem” attacks in discussion groups. The University of Chicago also requires 48 hours advance notice for any protest, effectively banning impromptu events.

In addition to fixing flaws in existing policies, I think the committee should urge that a full statement on free expression, based on its report, be added to the U of C’s formal policies, much like the University of Pennsylvania has.

Universities need to avoid repressive rules in their campus codes; but even more importantly, universities need to clearly state that freedom of expression is a supreme value on campus. On a day like this, when terrorists murdered journalists in an attempt to stifle free expression, we need to stand without compromise in defense of free speech.

5 thoughts on “University of Chicago Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression

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