University of Chicago Censors Student’s Facebook Photo Album

By May 5, 2009

A University of Chicago dean ordered a student to change the title of his Facebook.com photo album and remove pictures of his ex-girlfriend after she complained to the dean. Dean of Students Susan Art invoked the university’s policy of “dignity and respect” and claimed the authority to police allegedly disrespectful off-campus speech, even when it appears on a personal Facebook page. Indeed, the university violates its own promises of free speech by maintaining a policy subjecting disrespectful speech to disciplinary action and a “bias incident” policy that encourages members of the university to report on the so-called biases of their neighbors. The University of Chicago has chilled speech across the campus and has refused to respond in any meaningful way to FIRE’s letter in defense of freedom of speech.

On January 19, 2009, University of Chicago student Andrew Thompson posted a photograph “album” on his personal Facebook page. The title of the album was “[Name of ex-girlfriend] cheated on me, and you’re next!” Some of the photographs in the album were of Thompson’s ex-girlfriend, and dozens of the photographs were not. On January 19 and 20, a number of people other than Thompson posted comments about the allegation of cheating. One person wrote, “Seriously though, what a f***ing whore” (language redacted).

On January 20 at about 9:00 a.m., Thompson’s ex-girlfriend sent Susan Art, Dean of Students in the College, an e-mail claiming that the album’s title and the third-party comments on the title constituted “libel.” The woman stated that Thompson had refused to change the title of the album upon her request and asked Art “if this could be removed quietly and quickly from the internet.”

At 2:00 p.m., Art e-mailed Thompson, revealing the entire content of the ex-girlfriend’s e-mail, and demanded the censorship of Thompson’s album:

[Name of ex-girlfriend] has brought to my attention that you have posted her name on [F]acebook and that this has drawn some critical comments from others.  I am writing to ask you to remove her name and remove the pictures you have posted of her.  We have an expectation that members of the University community treat each other “with dignity and respect.”  This kind of post is disrespectful.  I know you think it is a joke, but it is very upsetting to her.

Can you let me know when her name and her pictures are removed from your [F]acebook page?

I expect this to happen right away.

Very shortly afterward, Thompson complied with Art’s censorship demands, but he resisted the idea that a University of Chicago dean could censor his protected speech. On January 21, he asked her by e-mail, “Can the university really regulate internet speech?  I did not say anything subjective or false, so I don’t see how I can be forced to do this…”

In a very troubling response e-mailed to Thompson later that day, Art essentially declared that the university’s Student Manual [of] University Policies and Regulations permits censorship of “disrespectful” speech:

Every member of the University – student, faculty, and staff – makes a commitment to strive for personal and academic integrity; to treat others with dignity and respect; to honor the rights and property of others; to take responsibility for individual and group behavior; and to act as a responsible citizen in a free academic community and in the larger society. Any student conduct, on or off campus, of individuals or groups, that threatens or violates this commitment may become a matter for action within the University’s system of student discipline.

If the University of Chicago really intends to start policing the “personal … integrity” of students as interpreted by its deans, one might wonder how far the university is going to go. How are students to know which aspects of “personal … integrity” might be adjudicated by the university? What about alleged sexual infidelity, which got this case started in the first place?

This censorship is a shameful betrayal and repudiation of the University of Chicago’s (my alma mater’s) vaunted tradition of freedom of expression. The university’s renowned Kalven Report (1967; PDF) has almost constitutional status at the university. For the sake of protecting the freedom of conscience of all its members, the university refrains from taking positions on controversial issues:

A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting….

[Yet,] [t]here is no mechanism by which [the university] can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives….

The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then … out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest….

[T]here emerges, as we see it, a heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day, or modifying its corporate activities to foster social or political values, however compelling and appealing they may be.

In addition, the university promises freedom of expression in its Student Manual: “At the University of Chicago, freedom of expression is vital to our shared goal of the pursuit of knowledge. Such freedom comes with a responsibility to welcome and promote this freedom for all, even in disagreement or opposition.” The Student Manual also states: “The ideas of different members of the University community will frequently conflict and we do not attempt to shield people from ideas that they may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive. Nor, as a general rule, does the University intervene to enforce social standards of civility.” (Emphasis added.)

It is impossible to see how the university’s commitment to freedom of expression can coexist, without contradiction, with policies that restrict that freedom. For example, the House System Rules and Regulations, as stated in the Student Manual, state that “if a posting is deemed to be offensive to a particular group or individual, the posting may be removed.”

Likewise, the Office of the Vice President for Campus Life and Dean of Students in the University’s website unilaterally pronounces that “The University of Chicago is committed to fostering an environment free from racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, homophobia, ableism, [and] xenophobia.” As noble as it may seem to institutionally oppose these aspects of discrimination, the university goes too far when it employs such policies to restrict and censor clearly protected speech on or off campus.

Even worse, as FIRE’s Samantha Harris reported last week, the University of Chicago’s office of Diversity, Civility, and Equity maintains a policy on responding to so-called “bias incidents.” Such incidents are defined as follows:

Bias is a pre-formed negative opinion or attitude toward a group of persons who possess common characteristics, such as skin color, or cultural experiences, such as religion or national origin. Bias incidents involve actions committed against a person or property that are motivated, in whole or in part, by the bias against race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin, ancestry, gender, gender identity, age, or disability.

A related page about reporting bias incidents provides specific examples of bias incidents, including “Remarks perceived as derogatory, made about you by a classmate” and “a message on your whiteboard perceived as derogatory.” These examples clearly demonstrate that the university includes in its definition of “bias incidents” expression that would be fully protected at every community college and public university in the nation. As Sam pointed out, unlike genuine harassmentwhich must be severe, pervasive, and objectively offensiveany expression “perceived as derogatory” and based on certain personal characteristics constitutes a “bias incident” at Chicago. The university is developing a 1984 or Soviet Russia-style community in which members are encouraged to report one another’s biases to the authorities.

FIRE wrote President Zimmer on February 23 of this year, requesting that all students be assured that their right to free speech and free inquiry remains entirely intact. Unlike almost every university that FIRE writes, however, the University failed to respond. Although FIRE did not threaten litigation, the letter was taken as such a threat, and the university’s Office of Legal Counsel was given responsibility to respond. But that office refused to respond to e-mails and phone calls. Finally we contacted Associate News Director William Harms, who procured this exceedingly bland response on April 9, continuing in the line of policing speech that would be protected anywhere in the public sphere and at most private colleges, too:

Freedom of expression is a core value of the University of Chicago. In order to make the free exchange of ideas possible, students, faculty, and other members of our community must help create a safe, respectful climate in which inquiry and debate can flourish. The University’s policies and practices are designed to safeguard that culture of robust and respectful discussion, and the legitimate rights of all involved.

Then, on April 23, the Office of Legal Counsel finally returned our call and stated that since it now realizes that we did not threaten litigation, the university does not want to engage in discussion with FIRE around this issue. This only adds to the university’s shame. The better thing would have been to kick our letter back to President Zimmer so that, like almost every other school we contact about a case, the university might offer the minimum respect of a genuine response.

This is nothing at all like the University of Chicago I used to know.

Schools: University of Chicago Cases: University of Chicago: Facebook Photo Album Censored for “Disrespect”