University of Chicago ‘Maroon’ Newspaper on FIRE and Free Speech

By on May 14, 2009

The Chicago Maroon student newspaper this week reported on FIRE’s criticism of the University of Chicago’s free speech policies, particularly with regard to the U of C’s censorship of a student’s Facebook.com page. Adam discussed this ridiculous case in depth on The Torch a few days ago. The gist of the case is that a male student, angry about his ex-girlfriend’s alleged infidelity, posted an album of pictures on Facebook entitled "[Name of ex-girlfriend] cheated on me, and you’re next!" This album drew comments from other Facebook users such as "Seriously though, what a f***ing whore" (language redacted), which led the ex-girlfriend to complain about the Facebook page to U of C administrators. Dean of Students Susan Art ordered the male student, Andrew Thompson, to remove the album, citing (of course) an absurdly vague and broad "expectation" that community members be treated "with dignity and respect."

The Maroon article is helpful in that it reported on the university’s reaction to FIRE’s letter asking Chicago what in the world it thought it was doing:

The University responded to the letter in April. "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," University spokesman Bill Harms wrote.

Kissel called this response "shameful…. Most universities at least give us the courtesy of a substantial response. The U of C has not," Kissel said in the interview. "It’s a pretty poor response and worse than usual."

University spokesman Steve Kloehn disagreed with Kissel’s characterization. "I believe that is a substantive response to questions around speech, the kind of response we would give any outside institution that wanted to understand our motivations," Kloehn said in an e-mail interview. "We believe that the most appropriate way to handle student matters is directly with the students, not through third parties." Kloehn and other administrators declined to comment further.

It’s no surprise that the U of C doesn’t want to work "through third parties" (aka FIRE) on this one: The university cannot justify in public what it wants to do in private. Are we to believe that the U of C did some kind of investigation into the truth or falsity of the allegations of infidelity? I certainly hope not, as that would be horrendously intrusive and, frankly, creepy. Instead, the U of C seems content to say that making such allegations, true or not, is unacceptable because it is not dignified or respectful. While that may be true, does the university really wish to make freedom of speech contingent on such criteria? If, say, former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke were to give a speech on campus, could we expect insufficiently "dignified" or "respectful" protestors to be hauled off by police or silenced by administrators? I doubt it; at least, I certainly hope not.

A search of FIRE’s website makes it clear that something about Facebook drives college administrators nuts. Perhaps it’s the novelty of the Internet and social networking; perhaps it’s the fact that casual communication that was formerly spoken is now written; perhaps it’s just the idea that students are able to communicate in ways less easily fettered by administrative diktat. Whatever it is, the U of C and many other colleges across the country need to come to terms with what Facebook reveals about the nature of normal student communication before they end up constructing massive, expensive, and oppressive edifices of censorship born of the paralyzing fear that somewhere, someone out there is saying mean things on the Internet.

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