UC free speech pledge challenged by protest organizer

A student government executive facing punishment for leading an unauthorized sit-in is accusing the University of Chicago of failing to uphold its commitments to free speech.

“The university likes to talk about its commitment to free speech, but when you look at reality, any time the inquiry gets critical, it gets shut down,” Student Government President Tyler Kissinger complained to WLS.

Kissinger will attend a disciplinary hearing Friday—one day before he is scheduled to graduate—related to his role in fomenting a sit-in at an administration building in May, and faces expulsion if administrators impose the maximum penalty.

The occupation began with a rally outside the administration building demanding action on various liberal priorities, such as a “living wage” for university employees, greater “accountability” from campus police, and fossil fuel divestment. Taking advantage of his role as student body president, Kissinger admits that he surreptitiously gained access to the building under the guise of carrying out official business, whereupon he proceeded to prop open a locked door so that other protesters could gain access to the building to stage the sit-in.

Despite being prepared for an extended occupation—students came equipped with chairs, food, and even “chant sheets”—the student activists abandoned their demonstration after only about one hour when administrators informed them that they would face arrest and possible expulsion.

Kissinger told The New York Times that he has been formally charged with “premeditated and dishonest behavior to gain entry to Levi Hall, creating an unsafe situation,” which he considers an infringement of his right to free speech and an indication of UC’s hypocrisy on the issue.

“If they are cracking down on people who are protesting, I don’t understand what the university means by free expression,” he said, referring to a series of statements and committee reports the university has issued in recent years outlining a broad understanding of free expression. “To punish students for free expression and for free assembly and for dissenting viewpoints I think chills free speech.”

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UC Assistant Vice President for Communications Jeremy Manier, however, disputed Kissinger’s characterization of the situation in a statement, saying the disciplinary hearing is based solely on alleged code of conduct violations, and is not a reprisal against Kissinger for taking a stand on a politically contentious issue.

“Freedom of expression and dissent are fundamental values of the University of Chicago, as reflected in the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” Manier began. In addition to that report, commonly known as the “Chicago Statement,” UC has also articulated its commitment to free speech in other documents, such as the 2015 Strauss Report and an update to Statute 21 of the University Statutes in 2013.

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“The University's policies do not prevent students from engaging in protest, and the University does not discipline students for speaking out on any issue,” Manier continued. “Any suggestion otherwise is simply untrue. All students are expected to follow the policies set forth in the Student Manual.”

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