Opening inquiry

As free expression comes under challenge on some campuses, the University’s affirmation of a long-standing value may become a model for higher education.

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In July 2014 President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Eric D. Isaacs asked law professor and free speech expert Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, to lead a faculty committee on freedom of expression. Moved to act by “recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse,” they charged the group with drafting a statement articulating UChicago’s “overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” 

Joining Stone on the committee were six senior faculty members representing the College, all four divisions, and three professional schools. “The University of Chicago has always been committed to creating an environment of open discussion and debate, and we believed that the University would benefit from a formal statement delineating our support of this principle,” President Zimmer said. “This commitment is essential to scholarship at the highest levels.”

The report has already made an impact on the national discussion of free expression on campuses. It was published, for instance, in the Spring 2015 Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It opens by citing affirmations of freedom of expression by leaders throughout the University’s history, from William Rainey Harper in 1902 to Robert Maynard Hutchins in the 1930s to Edward H. Levi, LAB’28, PhB’32, JD’35, in the 1960s to Hanna Holborn Gray in 2012. Though deeply grounded in the culture of this institution, the report (shorn of the UChicago particulars) has been adopted by other schools. In April the faculty at Princeton University voted to incorporate much of its language into the school’s campus code of conduct. Purdue University followed suit in May, also using largely the same wording. “We didn’t see how we could improve on the language,” Purdue president Mitch Daniels told the Huffington Post. That article referred to the values articulated in the statement as the “Chicago Principles,” a name that has since appeared in other media reports. 

“I hope that more and more universities adopt the so-called Chicago Principles and abide by them in spite of the difficulties in securing open discourse when many oppose it,” committee member Angela Olinto said. The importance of free expression, Gray added, “needs to be reiterated over time” in academic communities. “The issue arises under new circumstances, new contexts, new problems that sometimes come into being.”

The process of drafting the report was harmonious. “We did a lot of editing of each other’s words,” Stone says, “but fundamentally it was a pretty strong and clear consensus from early on about the direction.” Meeting every few weeks, the committee analyzed a number of hypothetical situations to ensure the final language would take into account the many complexities involved and provide sound principles for navigating a wide range of cases.

They consulted widely with colleagues on and off campus: dean of students in the University Michele Rasmussen, other administrators who work closely with students, and staff in the legal counsel and College housing offices. Rasmussen arranged for the committee to meet with a few dozen students, again drawn from across campus. The students voiced “very different perspectives,” Stone says—including concern about balancing freedom of expression with an inclusive and safe campus climate.

Although agreeing that universities should encourage civil discourse, Stone says that this should not cause “any sacrifice of the essential freedom to debate ideas, however offensive they may be to some members of the community.” The statement acknowledges “narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression,” including violations of the law and expression that constitutes a threat to others’ safety or harassment. On campus, as in US law, some limits are necessary, Stone says, but “in the context of public and academic discourse, our view is that the University should bend over very far backwards to defend the freedom of expression.”

So the University has done throughout its 125 years, making it a natural leader on this issue of national importance. “I think Chicago has been, over its history, extremely courageous about defending a culture that is aggressively protective of academic freedom and of freedom of expression,” Stone says. “It has defined itself in those terms.” 

 

Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression 

The Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago was appointed in July 2014 by President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Eric D. Isaacs “in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.” The Committee’s charge was to draft a statement “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” 

The Committee has carefully reviewed the University’s history, examined events at other institutions, and consulted a broad range of individuals both inside and outside the University. This statement reflects the long-standing and distinctive values of the University of Chicago and affirms the importance of maintaining and, indeed, celebrating those values for the future. 

From its very founding, the University of Chicago has dedicated itself to the preservation and celebration of the freedom of expression as an essential element of the University’s culture. In 1902, in his address marking the University’s decennial, President William Rainey Harper declared that “the principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental in the University of Chicago” and that “this principle can neither now nor at any future time be called in question.” 

Thirty years later, a student organization invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party’s candidate for President, to lecture on campus. This triggered a storm of protest from critics both on and off campus. To those who condemned the University for allowing the event, President Robert M. Hutchins responded that “our students … should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself.” He insisted that the “cure” for ideas we oppose “lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.” On a later occasion, Hutchins added that “free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] that without it they cease to be universities.” 

In 1968, at another time of great turmoil in universities, President Edward H. Levi, in his inaugural address, celebrated “those virtues which from the beginning and until now have characterized our institution.” Central to the values of the University of Chicago, Levi explained, is a profound commitment to “freedom of inquiry.” This freedom, he proclaimed, “is our inheritance.” 

More recently, President Hanna Holborn Gray observed that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.” 

The words of Harper, Hutchins, Levi, and Gray capture both the spirit and the promise of the University of Chicago. Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community “to discuss any problem that presents itself.” 

Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But 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. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community. 

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas. 

In a word, the 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. 

As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it. 

As Robert M. Hutchins observed, without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university. The University of Chicago’s long-standing commitment to this principle lies at the very core of our University’s greatness. That is our inheritance, and it is our promise to the future.

 

Committee on Freedom of Expression

Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, Chair

Marianne Bertrand, Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, Chicago Booth

Angela Olinto, Homer J. Livingston Professor, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Enrico Fermi Institute, and the College

Mark Siegler, MD’67, Lindy Bergman Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Surgery

David A. Strauss, Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law

Kenneth W. Warren, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor, Department of English and the College

Amanda Woodward, William S. Gray Professor, Department of Psychology and the College

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