I have previously written of my pride as an alumnus of The University of Chicago in how the school has led the fight for free speech in higher education. It is also ranked as the number one free speech school in the country. The “Chicago statement” has become the rallying point for schools resisting the anti-free speech movement sweeping over our university and college campuses. Now both the University of Oklahoma and entire University of Texas system have joined almost 100 schools in signing on to the statement. It remains a minority of schools but the ranks are growing (though often due more to boards than votes of the faculty). Unfortunately, George Washington University (which has been ranked low on free speech rights) has not agreed to this basic statement of free speech protection.
UChicago shocked many in 2016 when it sent a letter to incoming students that promised an unfettered and uncensored education without the protection from disturbing or offensive ideas. While most schools are actively curtailing free speech, its letter warned the students that they will not be protected against ideas or given “safe spaces.”
The origins of the letter is found in a policy produced at the University of Chicago in 2014-2015. The Chicago Statement’s key provision declares that a university’s
“fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.”
The Chicago Statement also states unequivocally that students cannot “obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views.” That latter statement stands in contrast with many academics who believe that stopping others from speaking is free speech.
Both students and some faculty have maintained the position that they have a right to silence those with whom they disagree and even student newspapers have declared opposing speech to be outside of the protections of free speech. At another University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display.
In the meantime, academics and deans have said that there is no free speech protection for offensive or “disingenuous” speech. CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,” Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech.
I do not understand why many academics have supported or stayed silent as our faculties have become intellectual echo chambers. However, it is depriving our students of the type of diverse and vibrant intellectual environment that many of us enjoyed as undergraduates.
When I attended the University of Chicago in the 1980s, I found myself in the midst of an intellectually vibrant community with a cacophony of voices, from Trotskyites to black nationalists to radical feminists to creationists. Then-President Hanna Gray told us that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.” And it did. Students thought a lot about where they fit in this world of ideas.
That followed the adoption by the entire University of Texas system. The board announced that the board “guarantees all members of the UT System the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” It also declared that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most individual members of the UT System community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”
UChicago has forced schools and faculty to take sides in this existential fight over free speech. While faculty members rationalize reasons not to support the statement, there is increasingly a sharp and clear divide among schools. The Chicago statement has become the battle line for not just free speech but the future of higher education. While many choose to ignore the rising orthodoxy on our campuses and lack of intellectual diversity on our faculties, this trend will ultimately destroy the essential element of free inquiry and expression needed for higher education.