‘Chicago Maroon’ Reports on University of Chicago Speech Codes

By on January 21, 2011

University of Chicago (U of C) campus newspaper Chicago Maroon has yet again highlighted FIRE’s red-light rating of the private institution due to its speech codes. The Maroon had published an article last year on the speech codes as well. In recent years, U of C has racked up numerous free speech controversies, including censorship of a student’s online speech, a Mohammed cartoon debacle, and censorship of a student’s Facebook album.

In the latest Maroon piece, writer Maria Mauriello describes FIRE’s free speech concerns about UC, particularly regarding its bias incident policy. U of C’s speech codes employ vague and inescapably subjective definitions of the terms "offensive," "harassment," and "derogatory" such that they provide little to no clarity on which speech is actually protected or unprotected at the university. As Mauriello points out:

A review of the U of C’s policy by Samantha Harris, the director of Speech Code research for FIRE, stated that the University’s bias policy was "the most problematic." This policy allows the University to investigate offensive, but not necessarily illegal, speech acts on campus. Examples of such action, as stated in the University student handbook, include derogatory comments made in person or on a dorm whiteboard.

Indeed, the policy clearly and substantially restricts students’ speech in violation of the university’s declared commitment to free expression. As Samantha has written:

Like so many university hate and bias incident policies and protocols, Chicago’s policy does not specify whether bias incidents alone can form the basis for disciplinary action. However, it explicitly states that bias incidents "will be addressed by the Bias Response Team" and encourages reporting of all bias incidents. Given that the definition of a "bias incident" includes protected speech, this means that protected speech is subject to investigation on Chicago’s campus. This, in and of itself, has a severe and impermissible chilling effect on free speech, since students will almost certainly wish to avoid the negative educational effects that would result from being subjected to any sort of disciplinary investigation, keeping silent about matters that ought to be freely discussed on a college campus.

Thus, FIRE’s Vice President of Programs, Adam Kissel, calls on students to advocate for the rights that the university has promised:

Adam Kissel (M.A.’02) … encouraged students to petition against the policy. "Students should advocate to abolish the bias incident policy in its current form or to significantly revise it to protect student expression."

Furthermore, the mere act of protesting U of C’s speech codes, however, could be problematic, as Mauriello explains:

The U of C requires that student protests be scheduled at least 48 hours in advance, allowing the administration to investigate protests that may be considered offensive, although not illegal.

The article also discusses the differences in free speech protection between a private and public institution, and it cites the Supreme Court’s decision in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999), which established the controlling standard for peer-on-peer harassment in the educational setting. Mauriello writes:

As a private institution, the University is not bound by First Amendment protections. But even public institutions of education are permitted to prohibit speech that is "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities."

Meanwhile, U of C President Robert Zimmer has claimed to be an advocate for free speech. For example, see this address given at Columbia University in 2009. In the speech, he reiterates a perspective attributed to U of C faculty members William Gardner Hale and Albion Small from the year 1899:

The principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental in the University of Chicago as has been shown by the attitude of both the President and the Board of Trustees; this principle can neither now nor at any future time be called into question …

Unfortunately, given the university’s policy and its recent record in practice, President Zimmer has not been living up to this commitment. (Adam and other commentators provided their own reactions to President Zimmer’s problematic speech at Minding the Campus.)

We appreciate Mauriello’s article, and we hope that President Zimmer reverses the recent trend and takes action to create a truly free and open forum for debate and expression at the University of Chicago.

Schools: University of Chicago