Freedom and Repression at the U of Chicago


I thought I was reading a campus newspaper from the 1950s when I saw this headline yesterday in the Chicago Maroon: “Communist Plans To Defy Campus Ban.”

Suddenly, the University of Chicago has become the epicenter of several free speech controversies. It turns out that it’s pretty easy to write big statements about how awesome academic freedom is. It gets a lot harder to put free speech into practice when the speakers are annoying and on the political fringe. However, that’s the real test of freedom: not whether we support it when the speech we like is being uttered, but when irritating people with annoying ideas deeply offend us and violate the protocols of civility.

When happened at the University of Chicago is that the local Revolutionary Communist Party held a protest before of a John Kerry speech, and because they are very energetic critics of neoliberalism, they decided to take a walk around campus to see if anything else needed protesting. Apparently it did. And so they went into a dining hall and marched around loudly critiquing things, and during that process, one of them (Noche Diaz) stood on a table and loudly critiqued things. For this, he was arrested.

When protesters yelled that they were on the way out of the building when the arrest was made, a campus police officer can apparently be heard saying, “It doesn’t matter.” But it does matter. This was not a sit-in where protesters refused to leave a space and disrupted essential university business, and an arrest was necessary to protect the rights of others. This was a punishment for daring to defy the norms and rules of the university.

I once stood on a table at the University of Chicago and yelled a very unpopular message at people (to explain that they would not get in to see Kurt Vonnegut). I was not arrested, perhaps because I did not express an extreme political ideology during a protest.

Marching around a dining hall, yelling out communist slogans, and standing on a table are incredibly rude and obnoxious. And they should be tolerated by a university.

One commenter at the Chicago Maroon noted, “How would you like it if they showed up at your dinner table at home uninvited?”

But that’s the fundamental difference between a home and a university. A home is a safe space, where you get decide who stays and goes. A university is not a safe space. A dining hall is not a quiet zone where students are entitled to be free from hearing things they don’t like.

Apparently the campus dining hall is now a safe space free from loud communists. I could have sworn that I heard somebody at the U of Chicago announce that the university does not condone safe spaces. Ah, here it is: “we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” Thanks, Dean Ellison.  I hadn’t heard about the “lunch” exception to that rule.

Even more disturbing than the arrest is the banishment of the individual from campus. Campus bans should be utilized only in the most extreme circumstances, when someone poses a physical threat to harm someone, or an extraordinary threat to violate the rights of others. In all other cases, if you think someone is going to do something illegal again, you can arrest them when they do it. A campus ban should always be avoided because it is a fundamental violation of the right to hear, and it has a chilling effect on the right of everyone to protest.

The banned communist and others gathered in the center of the quad yesterday to defy the University of Chicago’s ban, and the administration wisely took no action.

Communists in dining halls are not the only free speech controversy going on at the University of Chicago

Ex- (and now anti-) Communist David Horowitz is back trying to suppress academic freedom on campus.

Last week, Horowitz wrote a form letter to the University of Chicago and nine other colleges (the “top ten colleges supporting terrorism”) demanding that they ban Students for Justice in Palestine as a student organization: “we ask that you withdraw all university privileges granted to SJP and other campus groups who promote the genocidal Hamas agenda, and that you put an end to the terrorist influences which have infiltrated your campus and which threaten the security not only of Jewish students on your campus, but of all Americans.”

Horowitz also launched a campaign at these ten colleges, having his followers put up flyers naming specific students and faculty on campus and denouncing them as “Jew haters.”

The administration banned Horowitz’s offensive flyers, declaring: “While the University of Chicago encourages the free exchange of diverse ideas and perspectives concerning a wide range of issues, these flyers are defamatory and inconsistent with our values and policies.”

Horowitz was outraged that the University of Chicago removed his posters: “Our posters were not defamatory but factual.”

Actually, they were neither factual nor defamatory: they were the misguided opinions of a delusional bigot. But that does not mean they should be banned.

When the Chicago Statement was released last year, I critiqued it for failing to sufficiently protect free speech, and noted that allowing censorship of defamatory speech is a dangerous idea:

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.”

It can be extremely distressing to have a national figure lie about you and accuse you of being a “Jew hater” in flyers —far more distressing than having communists yelling during your dinner.

But if we ban David Horowitz and friends from calling specific people Jew haters, we might also need to ban people from calling Horowitz an Islamophobe, since it is an insult that he denies and considers defamatory. Name calling may not be the highest form of intellectual dialogue, but it is still an important component of honest free speech. And name calling is an important part of intellectual honesty and serious analysis. In my book, Trump Unveiled, I call Trump an idiot, a racist, a sexist, a buffoon, a conspiracy nut, and many more insults. If Donald Trump becomes president, I believe one reason will be the failure of journalists, politicians, professors, and intellectuals to honestly and accurately call him what he is because they were afraid that it would be considered rude and unprofessional to openly speak the truth. It’s worth noting how Trump has promised to sue dozens of his critics, and uses defamation law as a tool to suppress criticism; a university shouldn’t follow in his footsteps.

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