Does the University of Chicago Really Protect Free Expression?

BY JOHN K. WILSON

It’s praiseworthy that the University of Chicago has announced to its students a “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” But there is a problem: in this announcement, the University actually calls for limiting freedom of expression, and University of Chicago policies also severely limit free inquiry and student rights.

According to the letter, “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

I don’t like trigger warnings, but it is a fundamental academic freedom right of individual faculty to choose whether or not to give a trigger warning. This statement seems to indicate that trigger warnings aren’t allowed at the University of Chicago, and that’s wrong.

Even worse is that statement that the University of Chicago doesn’t “condone” safe spaces. If the University of Chicago does not “condone” people creating safe spaces, then it doesn’t condone individual liberty. Everyone is free to create their own “safe spaces” where they can retreat from things they don’t like. I don’t like safe spaces, but I would never suggest that they should be banned.

For all of the high-minded invocation of free speech, the University of Chicago has one of the worst speech codes (and perhaps the most confusing one) that I’ve ever read. It’s full of arbitrary power, lack of due process, and multiple disciplinary systems that are never adequately explained.

The worst part of it gives the Dean of Students total authority to effectively expel students without a hearing on extremely vague grounds. It’s called the “Involuntary Leave of Absence Policy” and there is an incredible variety of violations that qualify for banishment.

Under the policy, “a student may be placed on an involuntary leave of absence if arrested for serious criminal conduct and/or formally charged criminally with a serious crime (normally a felony).”

Some people might think that the presumption of innocence means that you can’t get suspended without a hearing merely for being arrested. But not the University of Chicago.

The policy declares, “the Dean of Students may require an involuntary leave of absence when he or she determines: (1) that the student has engaged, or threatened to engage, in conduct that has caused or is likely to cause serious disruption to the learning, extra-curricular and living activities of members of the community or others, including by impeding the rightful activities of others.”

A student can also be banned if “a student’s conduct raises concerns about the safety and well-being of the student or others, or causes significant disruption to the functioning of the University.” If the University of Chicago doesn’t believe in safe spaces, perhaps it shouldn’t ban students without a hearing over posing a risk to the “well-being” of anyone.

And if a student doesn’t like the “involuntary leave of absence” imposed by the Dean of Students, they can request a review—by the same Dean of Students who just banned them from campus without a hearing. And according to the policy, “The decision is final and unreviewable within the University.”

The purpose of this policy is probably to allow the University of Chicago to expel students who have suicidal thoughts, so that the University doesn’t have to deal with the nuisance or can force them to get medical treatment. But the way it’s written, it gives the Dean of Students total arbitrary power to expel students without a hearing, on extremely vague grounds, and without the right of appeal. If you are arrested for any crime, if your conduct “raises concerns” about the “well-being” of anyone, if you cause “significant disruption” (whatever that means) you can be banned from campus without a hearing or appeal.

What does disruption mean? According to the U of C protest policy, “Disruptive conduct includes but is not limited to (1) obstruction, impairment, or interference with University sponsored or authorized activities or facilities in a manner that is likely to or does deprive others of the benefit or enjoyment of the activity or facility…”

What if your “enjoyment” of an activity or facility is affected by someone’s protest, as it often is? Under these rules, you can be punished. In fact, because the clause includes the phrase “is not limited to,” the University of Chicago can punish you for anything it deems disruptive, even if it doesn’t affect someone’s “enjoyment.” Isn’t the University of Chicago’s “enjoyment” protections the very definition of a “safe space”?

In fact, you don’t even need to be actually disruptive (whatever that means) to be banned by the U of C.

The University also has the “right to deny individuals access to all or some University property” for “suspicious activity, or behavior that is or is likely to be…disruptive to University operations and activities.” Yes, merely being “suspicious” or deemed “likely to be disruptive,” without actually being disruptive, is grounds for being banned from University of Chicago property, again without a hearing or an appeal.

According to the U of C, “All events and activities planned to take place out-of-doors on campus must be approved in advance.” Any outdoor event with “large attendance” or the “possibility of demonstration” will “require special permission of the Senior Director for Student Life, or his or her designee in advance of the event.” This means the administration has the power to ban any outdoor event that has the “possibility of demonstration” (again, without a hearing or any way to appeal) and the rules even express concern about the “potential for the attendance of persons with views that differ from the views held by event organizers.” For a university that declares it doesn’t cancel speakers with offensive views, why does it reserve the power to do so?

The U of C rules also violate the principle of individual responsibility: “individual misconduct may also be, at least in part, the responsibility of other members of the group and the group leadership.” According to the U of C, if someone in a study group or a student organization violates a rule, everyone else in that group can also be punished for it. This certainly could have an intimidating effect on freedom of association.

And the U of C has extreme restrictions on inviting political candidates to speak on campus.

According to the rules, “advance approval from the Office of Legal Counsel is required when a candidate is invited to speak on campus.” And it warns, “The event should not resemble a campaign rally.” It adds, “the University must ensure that the atmosphere is nonpartisan and that neither the candidate nor any representative of the University mentions the candidacy or the upcoming election.”

For student groups inviting candidates to speak, “participation in such activities is limited to members of the University community. Prior approval must be obtained from the Office of Legal Counsel and the Office of the Reynolds Club & Student Affairs, division or professional school in these circumstances. Any student group engaging in political activities must make it clear in its written materials and at its events or meetings that its members are speaking as individuals and not on behalf of the University.” All of this is wrong, and there is no legal justification for it. A university must not require prior approval of events, must not ban outsiders from attending events, and must not compel certain speech by student groups.

The University of Chicago even bans people online from linking to any campaign-related material: “The IRS will treat information posted on the University’s website that supports or opposes a candidate in the same manner as printed material that is distributed. Accordingly, there should be no text on the University website that supports or opposes a candidate, nor should there be links to candidate or campaign-related material.”

And all of these serious concerns about the University of Chicago’s policies on free speech don’t even include the actual speech code at the U of C, which I couldn’t find online because there’s no single code of conduct, but one for each academic unit that they make difficult to access online. I was able to find the Harris School of Public Policy which includes a broad prohibition on “breaches of standards of behavior expected of a student” and declares that “violation and breaches of standards include but are not limited to,” which gives them the power to punish a student for almost anything.

The University of Chicago is trying to sell a brand identity as a university opposed to political correctness, one where freedom of speech prevails. Unfortunately, its policies don’t match its rhetoric, and its rhetoric often displays a lack of understanding about freedom of speech.

5 thoughts on “Does the University of Chicago Really Protect Free Expression?

  1. Pingback: More on the Hypocrisy of the University of Chicago Administration | ACADEME BLOG

  2. Very thoughtful post. The issue of disruption has always been a convenient ruse to silence speech. Before the Supremes struck down the hecklers’ veto, even a hint of disruption was used as a pretext to ban speech.

    My preference is disruption over the status quo and, when necessary, shutting down the system to effectuate radical, progressive change.

    Was Dr King disruptive UofC?

    • Today’s solution is tomorrow’s problem. Don’t assume that disruptive, radical and “progressive” change will result in something better for most people. Usually the unintended consequences overwhelm the intended benefits before very long.

  3. As a U of C alumnus with strong misgivings about the ‘letter’ in question, I read your post with a lot of interest and sadness. Just curious whether other elite universities are similarly hypocritical about free speech? Surely, some must be better than others in this regard?

    • The U of C’s system is unusually complex: a university disciplinary system, a disciplinary system for each school or college, and a shadow disciplinary system of involuntary leave. The U of C’s university disciplinary system tends to be very good; it has decent rules, due process, and very good reporting to the public about cases after they’re dealt with. The school-based disciplinary systems are all over the map: the law school has none, which is good, relying solely on the university system. Harris School has very broad vague rules, which are bad. As for the other U of C schools I can’t find their codes, and the U of C didn’t respond to my inquiry. The shadow speech code giving the Dean of Students massive power for involuntary leave is the worst I’ve ever seen.

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