Univ. of Chicago held up as national model for free speech

A policy statement produced earlier this year by the University of Chicago affirming the school’s commitment to free speech is being held up as a national model for other schools to adopt.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) announced Monday that it is embarking on a national campaign to encourage colleges and universities to adopt a version of the statement approved by Chicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression, which disavows the suppression of any ideas simply because they might be offensive or distasteful.

Citing examples from throughout the university’s history, the statement also rejected any restrictions on speech beyond a few “narrow exceptions”—such as speech that violates the law, falsely defames an individual, or constitutes genuine harassment—as being inconsistent with its stated mission.

In 1932, for instance, the committee noted that President Robert Hutchins stood up to protesters upset that the Communist Party presidential candidate William Z. Foster had been invited to speak on campus by a student organization, arguing that the “cure” for ideas we oppose “lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.”

While acknowledging that “the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict,” the statement nonetheless asserts that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Geoffrey Stone, the UC professor who chaired the Committee on Freedom of Expression, and FIRE vice president Will Creeley co-authored an op-ed for the Washington Post Friday arguing that numerous “depressing examples” over the past year underscore the need for other schools to adopt the Chicago statement.

At Northwestern University, they write, one professor “endured a months-long Title IX investigation” for publishing an essay in which she discussed a high-profile sexual assault case, and another resigned a few months later to protest the university’s censorship of a faculty-edited medical journal.

They also offer the example of Louisiana State University professor Teresa Buchanan, who was fired after her “occasional use of profanity” was deemed to constitute sexual harassment.

Even President Obama, they point out, recently made comments criticizing “coddled” college students for demanding that they be protected from conflicting viewpoints, a position with which the president said he did not agree.

FIRE claims that its efforts, which have heretofore primarily involved writing letters to universities with restrictive speech codes, are already paying off, with Princeton University, Purdue University, and Winston-Salem State University having already adopted the “core values” of the Chicago statement. Johns Hopkins University and American University, meanwhile, have also embraced policies that are substantially similar to that of UC.

“The University of Chicago statement on free expression isn’t just for the University of Chicago,” summarized FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff.

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