Farewell to Robert Zimmer, Champion of Free Speech and Academic Freedom

This week, academia and the free speech community lost one of our most important figures.  Former University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer passed away at 75. Zimmer was an inspiration for many of us who have resisted the rising atmosphere of intolerance at colleges and universities across the country. His issuance of the Chicago Principles would prove one of the most important moments in American higher education and will forever leave us all in his debt.

I have always been proud of my alma mater, The University of Chicago, for its commitment to free speech. However, my proudest moment came when Zimmer sent a famous letter to the class of 2020. The letter warned students that they will not be shielded from views that upset them or given “safe spaces” on campus.

In the letter, the university declared that “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.”

It was a moment of clarity that is missing in today’s environment of speech codes, microaggressions, and cancel campaigns.

When he stepped down in 2021, there was a virtual panic in the free speech community. He was our champion and placed one of the premier academic institutions in the world on the side of free speech. It was the academic equivalent of Elon Musk releasing the Twitter Files and dismantling the company’s massive censorship operation.

Zimmer became the target of academics who have worked to limit free speech and academic freedom. He never flinched. He remained unyielding in support of the ideals of free thought and expression.

It is a struggle that continues to this day. It is still not clear whether his successor, Armand Paul Alivisatos, will show the same fortitude for free speech, but we are all hopeful.

In the meantime, the desire to silence others continues to rest like a dormant virus in the university. The week that Zimmer passed, students and groups pushed to block a conservative columnist from being able to speak on campus. These are students who accepted admission at a school that expressly told them that they would have to agree to UChicago’s free speech principles. They were specifically told that the university is based on the belief that you cannot cancel those with opposing views. After accepting those conditions, they sought to cancel this speaker and impose the same intolerance that has ruined other schools.

The school is ranking among the top universities in the world and it is ranked number one for free speech. Yet, these students accepted admission and proceeded to try to convert the school in their own intolerant image.

Fighting free speech at UChicago is like going to Notre Dame to oppose football.

Zimmer was born on Nov. 5, 1947, in Manhattan and raised by his father who was a doctor and his mother who managed his medical office. He would often refer to being raised in the diverse community as instilling a deep tolerance for divergent views: “You felt that tolerance in a deep way.”

I only wish that the exposure to New York had the same impact on many citizens today who have supported censorship in the name of fighting misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation.

Robert Zimmer left us with a lasting legacy that will hopefully inspire others in academia. Many professors have remained silent in the face of intolerance and orthodoxy. Zimmer stood up and spoke up. He lived his life in support of the right of others to think and speak freely, including those with whom he disagreed.  He knew that higher education demands a leap of faith not only in free speech, but in each other. He lived a life of enduring faith in principles lost by too many in our society. It is a legacy that will endure for generations.

Farewell, Robert Zimmer, and thank you.


30 thoughts on “Farewell to Robert Zimmer, Champion of Free Speech and Academic Freedom”

  1. Kudos to Zimmer for standing firm in a time where most college Presidents were going wishy-washy.

    That said, there remain serious questions about how best to bring competing ideas and voices together in
    a public venue such that constructive conflict is facilitated, but militant tactics are not. The claim that cancelling
    or silencing an opponent is just another form of free speech is vacuous — that theory is totally asymmetrical (steeped in dominance-submission outcomes where one side seeks to “win” by something other than meritocratic, respectful, civil discourse).

    What’s needed is to bookend the allowable expanse of free speech. On one end is the right to silence, neutrality, and “no opinion”. On the other end are red lines roping off militant tactics: deceitful infowarfare, doxxing, filibustering, accusatory ad-hominem attack, threats to reputational or physical harm, expletive-laced rants, and evasions such as changing the topic.

    Since constructive discourse in the face of disagreement is a learned social skill, the question is: who and where are these skills to be taught and learned? Is it the role of the public schools to be teaching civility skills?

    If every k-12 student were thrust into the role of team-lead or moderator, where the team is tasked with solving a complex problem, I think it would teach that student the prohibitions on militancy necessary to keep the team creative, productive and cohesive.

  2. I am sure that Zimmer showed courage and integrity. The University of Chicago that I attended twice cannot be sustained or restored on the basis of a piece of paper written by one courageous man in the face of a poisonous academic culture and a woke student body that undermines it every day in every interaction. The UofC I attended is gone. The buildings are still there and there is still valuable scholarship but I cannot support the university and I cannot hope that my grandchildren attend.

  3. CareNotCops
    Environmental Justice Task Force
    Students for Disability Justice
    University of Chicago Students for Justice in Palestine
    UChicago Against Displacement
    UChicago Democratic Socialists of America

    Anyone know the graduation rate for these tourists?

  4. I am sorry your friend is gone. And I mourn too.we can’t ever be free….if we don’t call the kettle black to be free from! So what is the kettle? The great mystery? Because that’s the problem no one has solved the great mystery! 50 p?is million men have their lives..dead….let that sink in fifth million men…..died….because they believed….In their prodgeny! No one can prove if there is actually heaven or hell….but we already fought this war! Millions of Americans and millions of Russians have already died for our “prodgeny”…..so we know in all our hearts procreation and prodegy. And so it won’t be so easy by the world of mankind to separate our souls. At all!. The whole world of decent people will always side with honest americans! So of course it’s natural usa calls anyone who doesn’t endorse their perversion…a terrorist…when it’s totally natural they would love others I. The natural course of things…..so basically the USA declared war on everything natural…..and wonders why their heretofore patriots….sign up with other coubtries? Hello? We the people? Ring a bell?

      1. But like Tina Turner said…we don’t need another hero! Where is your logic against hers? All go narrisicts? We dontneed another hero! Long live tons turner!..long live the rest for salvation! Rip tina! Saved so many souls! We don’t need another hero..we got Christ himself!

  5. I appreciate Prof Turley’s constant stance on supporting the 1st Amd to the USC & the other Amds to the rest of the USC.

    But like so many other pressing issues of concern I’m wondering what I should name this file on David Martin’s report this week about the Mass Genocide in the US from the so called CV19 Toxic Vax. Some people are so stupid they think they can ignore it & they & they’re families & friends will still collect their govt pensions schemes ( I’ll pay you next Tuesday for a hamburger today.) jeezs…. exhale.

    Any Ideas for Title Name to a file?

    About 24 minutes of Stats & citations for you of this current Gov’s Genocide/Demiocide:

    I’m thinking: US Gov/Corporate 2019-2021 Demiocide. What do you think?

    Timeline: COVID-19 Is A Military Bio-weapon


    May 26, 2023
    Bill Gates Is EVIL
    Bill Gates Is EVIL

    Researcher David Martin lays out the 50 year timeline of how COVID-19 became bio-weapon.


    1. No…they will bury themselves as evil….someone is hiring their pumped out. When that someone starts murdering the pimp. America changes. And quickly….bc their business model is otherwise suicide….and they know it. Be men ….kill the pimps! Maga!

  6. In the meantime, the desire to silence others continues to rest like a dormant virus in the university.

    It is happening in government meetings as well, but then again Richmond, Virginia is a left wing sheet hole. Now come the Marxist City Council Members censoring, canceling and expelling a person for free speech at a public meeting in Richmond City Hall. The Marxist Council Members conflate denouncing of Trans targeting minors with homophobia. Globally gays and lesbians themselves denounce the Trans extremism movement as erasing gays and lesbians, demeaning women, exploiting children for political ideology. Yet, the Richmond government showed their Marxist leaning by lying, distorting and escorting individuals out of public government meetings for holding opinions that clash with the regime.

    Richmond is where Patrick Henry delivered his famous Give me liberty or give me death speech in March of 1775, when the Second Virginia Convention met at St. John’s Church in Richmond

    “Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace, Peace,’ but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? … Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

    Richmond has fallen once again! So sad!

    Richmond resident removed from meeting following homophobic comments

    During the city’s public comment period in which residents have three minutes to address any topic that is not on the agenda, Richmond resident Joseph Domino came forward to discuss drag performances in the city.

    Despite several requests for him to return to his seat, Domino remained at the podium, saying drag performances are “dangerous substance” to children and will lead to communist indoctrination. As a result, Jones ordered Domino be removed from City Hall. Domino left without incident. City councilmembers spoke out against Domino’s remarks following the public comment period, stating that drag performances are a form of artistic expression.


    1. Andrew Sullivan responds to the erasing of gays and lesbians with the LGBTQ+ / Trans movement.

      The Queers Versus The Homosexuals: We are in a new era. And the erasure of gay men and lesbians is intensifying

      MAY 19, 2023

      No one held a news conference and announced that from 2015 on, after Obergefell, the gay rights movement had changed its entire rationale. But they sure gave hints. The Human Rights Campaign, once a relatively moderate group, replaced “gay” and “lesbian” with the acronym “LGBTQ+” and expanded the word “queer” to describe anyone gay, lesbian, transgender, or even straight who defied heteronormativity. They changed the flag from a simple rainbow, to one that included some races (only black and brown — no Asians or whites) and transgender ideology. Their building in DC is festooned with a massive banner declaring their mission: “Black Lives Matter, Black Trans Lives Matter.” Their new head is a woman who calls herself “queer,” not lesbian.

      Then they quietly changed the meaning of the word “gay” so that it no longer referred to same-sex attraction, but to same-gender attraction; and changed the word “men” to include people with vaginas and uteruses, and the word “women” to include people with dicks and balls. Checkmate for the gays! We are all now just bigots with “genital preferences,” just like the Christianist right used to claim. Just to add to the confusion, hundreds of new “genders” were adopted — because some teens on Tumblr once invented them and queer theorists loved them.


        1. Estovir – that was an informative essay. It shows that the marriage of LGB with TQ is ill-advised. The two are at odds with each other and will eventually separate out from each other like oil and vinegar.

          Trans ideology is irreconcilable with both gay rights and women’s rights.

          1. This aged well, when drag was considered a joke, but now it is Left Wing regime talking points

            1994 Budweiser Light “Ladies Night” athletes in drag TV ad

            1. Estovir, I was just saying today that what is needed is for the gay community to speak out and to end their association with the drag, trans movement, especially since they are involving kids more and more. The T’s are ruining the LGB people and it is a shame.

          2. No one who stands up for freedom of expression can help but agree with what Professor Turley wrote about Robert Zimmer. That freedom, including its expression in the First Amendment, is self executing to be sure. Robert Zimmer added a noble thought. If you commit to freedom of expression as a condition of entry to the University, you cannot escape the optics that you are estopped to be heard- or believed- when you renounce your promise.

    2. If Domino were advocating for Genocide -it would still be his right to speak.

      It is especially hypocritical that the City Counsel cited “free expression” as the justification for the conduct that Domino was silenced for speaking out against.

      All of this is the result of the idiotic nonsense by left wing nuts equating speech with violence.

      That makes criticism violence and allows censoring those who criticize you.

  7. O T –
    Here’s why Tulsi Gabbard should be the Republican candidate for President in 2024 instead of Donald Trump. It is from her intereview yesterday on Laura Ingraham’s show (quoted from Briebart):
    “Now, I think what most of the — of today’s Democratic Party, they haven’t grappled with the fact that people aren’t leaving the party because of just one issue,” host Laura Ingraham said. “They’re leaving the party because of like 10 issues in the lurch to the left. That’s, I mean, they’ve gone so far left, they’ve left America. I mean, this is an unrecognizable coalition of radicals.”
    “Yes, Laura, they’re lurching further and farther towards insanity. Really, there’s no other word that I can find to describe it, you know,” Gabbard replied. “The list of reasons, unfortunately, is long. And I think we will continue to see more and more Americans who maybe call themselves Democrats and are used to but leaving the Democratic Party because of a whole host of reasons. It’s, you know, an elitist cabal of warmongers that’s made of corrupt politicians, the propaganda media, big tech, and the national security state. They are weaponizing the security state to go after political opponents.”
    “They’re undermining our God-given rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution,” she continued. “You know, they are seeking to censor and silence anyone who does not agree with them. They’re tearing us apart with identity politics and racializing everything looking at what the NAACP just announced with Florida. I mean, the list, unfortunately, we could do a whole show on all of these things. And I think more and more Americans are seeing clearly what they’re doing not to the party. This isn’t about the party, but it’s really what are they doing to this country and how are they undermining our rights and freedoms in our democracy. That’s really what’s at the heart of this.”
    Is there anyone else speaking so clearly and convincingly? Why is there no one out there promoting her as a candidate?

    1. Is Tulsi a good candidate for today’s issues? She is young. I don’t know how many positions she changed or needs to change, but her history shows her to be on the left.

      She is weak about Iran.
      She voted to ban fracking.
      She was in favor of the Paris Climate Accords.
      She wanted to end fossil fuel use for energy by 2050 while giving tax incentives for wind and solar.
      Wants free tuition for higher education
      Wants to eliminate the Electoral College.
      No photo IDs to vote
      Desires statehood for the District of Columbia
      For Medicare-for-All
      Opposed repealing ObamaCare
      Voted against work requirements for welfare recipients.

      If you are on the left, she might be a good candidate. Are you on the left?

      She is not a libertarian and wants a bigger government, so she should not appeal to those on the right, but she does because many believe what they want to hear.

      I LIke her, but will not vote for her based on these positions.

  8. 𝐂𝐨𝐚𝐥𝐢𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐒𝐭𝐚𝐭𝐞𝐦𝐞𝐧𝐭 𝐨𝐧 𝐁𝐫𝐞𝐭 𝐒𝐭𝐞𝐩𝐡𝐞𝐧𝐬’𝐬 𝐂𝐥𝐚𝐬𝐬 𝐃𝐚𝐲 𝐈𝐧𝐯𝐢𝐭𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧

    We, the undersigned students, faculty, and staff, have decided to make our collective voice heard in unequivocally condemning the administration’s decision to host Bret Stephens.

    By CareNotCops, Environmental Justice Task Force, Students for Disability Justice, University of Chicago Students for Justice in Palestine, UChicago Against Displacement, and UChicago Democratic Socialists of America
    May 21, 2023


  9. 𝐔. 𝐨𝐟 𝐂𝐡𝐢𝐜𝐚𝐠𝐨 𝐭𝐨 𝐟𝐫𝐨𝐬𝐡: 𝐍𝐨 ‘𝐬𝐚𝐟𝐞 𝐬𝐩𝐚𝐜𝐞𝐬’ 𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞
    Published August 24, 2016

    The University of Chicago, one of America’s most prestigious and selective universities, is warning incoming students starting this fall not to expect safe spaces and a trigger-free existence during their four-year journey through academia.

    In a letter sent to the class of 2020, university officials said one of the defining characteristics of the school was its unwavering commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. Civility and mutual respect are vital to the campus culture, the letter states, but not at the expense of shielding students from unpopular opinions or ideas.

    “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,” the letter states.

    The University of Chicago is consistently ranked one of the top universities in the world, and also one of the most selective. Only about 8 percent of the more than 31,000 people who applied to enter the class of 2020 were accepted by the school.

    The warning from Chicago stands in sharp contrast to many other American universities that have gone out of their way to coddle students by protecting them from ideas they may find offensive or disturbing.

    The University of Chicago is having none of it. To drive home the point, the letter to students includes a link to a report on freedom of expression issued by the university in January 2015. The report quotes a former president of the University, Hanna Holborn Gray, as saying that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.

    𝐑𝐞𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐂𝐨𝐦𝐦𝐢𝐭𝐭𝐞𝐞 𝐨𝐧 𝐅𝐫𝐞𝐞𝐝𝐨𝐦 𝐨𝐟 𝐄𝐱𝐩𝐫𝐞𝐬𝐬𝐢𝐨𝐧 – 𝐉𝐚𝐧𝐮𝐚𝐫𝐲 𝟐𝟎𝟏𝟓

    A committee of faculty members from across the University was convened by President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Eric D. Isaacs, chaired by Geoffrey Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law. They were charged with crafting a statement “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” This report reflects the University of Chicago’s commitment to and tolerance of multiple forms of free expression, an important value of the University and its community.

    𝐋𝐢𝐧𝐤 𝐭𝐨 𝐚 𝐑𝐞𝐩𝐨𝐫𝐭 [.𝐩𝐝𝐟]

  10. Robert Zimmer was a man that we need more of in today’s academia. Even though I never heard of him before this tribute, I am loyal to the ideals that he expressed as President of the University of Chicago. His viewpoint reminds me of another university leader from my area: Dr Everett Piper at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

    When Dr Piper was confronted by a student who demanded trigger warnings be made available for a certain class at the university, his response was, “This is a college, not a day-care,” which became the title to a book he published several years ago.

    People like them are going to be missed.

  11. Robert Zimmer was a true champion of free speech and academic freedom. His commitment to these principles has inspired many of us who have witnessed the erosion of tolerance on college campuses. His issuance of the Chicago Principles marked a pivotal moment in higher education, reminding us of the importance of open dialogue and the rejection of “safe spaces” and censorship.

    As an alum of The University of Chicago, I have always been proud of its dedication to free speech. Zimmer’s famous letter to the class of 2020 was a defining moment. It emphasized that students should be exposed to diverse views and not shielded from discomfort. In a time of speech codes and cancel culture, Zimmer’s unwavering support for intellectual freedom provided much-needed clarity.

    His departure in 2021 left the free speech community in a state of concern. Zimmer was a steadfast advocate for free thought and expression, placing one of the world’s top academic institutions firmly on the side of free speech. His unwavering stance faced opposition from those who sought to limit speech and academic freedom, but he never wavered.

    While we remain hopeful that Zimmer’s successor will continue his legacy, challenges persist. Recent attempts to silence speakers at the university remind us that the fight for free speech is ongoing. It is disheartening to see students who accepted admission to an institution known for its commitment to free speech now attempting to impose their own intolerant views.

    Zimmer’s upbringing in a diverse community instilled in him a deep tolerance for divergent views. It is a quality we could use more of today, as many embrace censorship in the name of combating misinformation. Zimmer’s lasting legacy should inspire others in academia to speak up and stand firm for the principles of free speech and open discourse.

    We bid farewell to Robert Zimmer with gratitude for his unwavering dedication. His life exemplified a steadfast belief in the right of others to express themselves freely, even when in disagreement. His legacy will endure, reminding us of the enduring value of free speech and the importance of fostering a society that embraces diverse perspectives. Thank you, Robert Zimmer.

  12. Many Americans support free speech, freedom of religion, western civilization, and education in the classics of our civilization, including its great works of art, literature, and music, and its advances in law. Our cause is just, and we should never forget that. As for the forces opposing free speech in academia, government, high tech, and corporations generally – they too think their cause is just but it is not. They are the philosophical offspring of Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

    Marcuse was a Marxist theorist who explicitly opposed free speech. In that school of thought, free speech is a tool of the powerful to keep the masses in check by giving them what appears to be freedom, but not really. Their viewpoint is explicitly revolutionary, where they see the whole of western civilization as oppressive and support violent revolution to bring about a more just society.

    One of the sticking points to achieving that “just society” has been the emergence of a vast middle class, which was made possible by the industrial revolution and advances in technology. They hate the middle class because they view society as only having two classes, the oppressive rich and the huge numbers of poor. The middle class is inconvenient to them in two ways: it undercuts their premise that there are only two classes, and it means that large numbers of people do not want revolution because they are generally satisfied with their economic position in life.

    Bottom line: the anti-free-speech side is inherently destructive of everything most Americans value, and the pro-free-speech side wants to uphold western civilization while also improving it, but not through violent revolution.

  13. 1st Amendment

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

    – Robert Zimmer, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Dickinson, John Jay, Robert Morris et al.

  14. Thanks for the great tribute to Robert Zimmer. (The link to “students and groups pushed” is incorrect.)

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