The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)

A response to “Against Endorsing the Chicago Principles”

By December 13, 2018

In a recent article titled “Against Endorsing the Chicago Principles,” University of Pennsylvania professor Sigal Ben-Porath argues that colleges and universities should not adopt a statement of principles based on the “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago (better known as the “Chicago Statement” or the “Chicago Principles”) due to the “false assurances” and “limited value” it offers. This thoughtful argument adds to the contributions Ben-Porath has made to the ongoing conversation about freedom of expression in higher education, including her recent book Free Speech on Campus.

Ben-Porath makes a number of points throughout her article, and we don’t disagree with all of them. But we do disagree with her contentions that adopting a free speech statement represents “false assurances” for the colleges and universities that adopt them, and that such statements have “limited value” in addressing the concerns of minority students on campus, outweighing the overall value of adopting such statements.

But first, let’s highlight the several points of agreement FIRE shares with Ben-Porath. Near the conclusion of the piece, Ben-Porath urges institutions to “treat the endorsement of the principles as a means of starting a conversation about campus speech rather than as an end in itself.” Indeed, this is precisely how FIRE hopes institutions will approach this process. The adoption of a free speech policy statement should merely mark the beginning of an institution’s ongoing commitment to freedom of expression. Ideally, these principles will become the hallmark of the campus community the institution hopes to build.

Ben-Porath concludes by arguing that “preserving free speech on campuses requires a redoubling of our efforts to include all of our students in a community of free inquiry.” Again, FIRE agrees. Students should ideally be given the opportunity to participate in any discussion of university values. Indeed, the diversity of viewpoints Ben-Porath highlights is incredibly valuable to enhancing the climate for free expression.

However, Ben-Porath asserts that the Chicago Statement offers colleges and universities “false assurances,” arguing that the statement is not effective, and characterizing it as a “blunt tool” that relies on a “legalistic and formal framework” that cannot fully address the problems and dynamics of a modern college campus. But addressing every tension and problem on a college’s campus is not its purpose. Adopting a free speech statement is a demonstration of a university’s active commitment to upholding its faculty and students’ freedom of expression, and helps educate the campus community about the necessary conditions for a liberal education. It also serves as a guidepost for how the university will go about approaching and resolving any speech controversies that arise, and enables members of the campus community to hold the university accountable to the promises it makes in the statement.

We heartily agree that in most cases, tension on campus over free speech “cannot simply be resolved by endorsing a one-size-fits-all statement,” but while adopting a free speech policy statement is not a magic elixir that eliminates free speech controversies on campus, the fact that a goal is aspirational does not render steps in that direction meaningless. Nor does supposed bluntness or legalism render such a statement ineffective. The First Amendment itself is far blunter and more legalistic than the Chicago Statement, but no person would deny that it has been effective.

Similarly, virtually every college has found some value in adopting non-discrimination statements, despite the fact that they also cannot completely solve every problem and tension on campus, and certainly do not by themselves serve as a “cure” for racism or sexism. This is among the reasons that FIRE encourages institutions to craft their own statements to reflect their unique institutional values and history. Colgate University, Brandeis University, and Christopher Newport University have each done just that this fall. These institutions, along with many others on FIRE’s list of Chicago Statement schools, have incorporated significant input from various campus stakeholders throughout their review and deliberation processes.

Ben-Porath references the fact that students at Williams College, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, have posed vehement opposition this fall to a faculty petition endorsing the Chicago Statement. She argues that this episode demonstrates why the statement has “limited value” in addressing the concerns of students of various minority groups. In fact, we believe it highlights the critical importance of having these kinds of discussion on campus, since some involved may be misinformed about the aims of the Chicago Statement, and the value of the First Amendment more generally. As FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff wrote, students at Williams, in a widely circulated petition against the adoption of the Chicago Statement, “are asking to be protected from offensive ideas rather than to be taught how to effectively engage them.” The student petition does not account for the fact that the First Amendment has always been the safeguard of minority expressionnot its oppressor.

Williams President Maud Mandel has acknowledged students’ desire to be part of the process, recently announcing that the college would form a committee to discuss the Chicago Statement and other policies regarding free expression. Affirming its commitment to freedom of expression in no uncertain terms would indeed aid the college in forming recommendations to “ensure an educational environment that’s both intellectually open and inclusive,” as Mandel explained when announcing purpose of the committee. Otherwise, in the future, the college may end up acquiescing to the demands of some, depriving other members of the campus community from hearing what a controversial speaker, or even a Williams student, has to say. That Williams might decide to do so can hardly be said to be unlikely, as then-Williams College student (now alumnus and author) Zach Wood discovered back in 2016 when he attempted to bring such a speaker to campus.

Ben-Porath also argues that the Chicago Statement would offer “little guidance” in situations where students opposed a faculty-invited speaker or to minority students who “view some common practices in their colleges — admissions, academics, events — as undermining their equal membership.” To the contrary, the text of the Chicago Statement indicates that universities that subscribe to it would not encourage members of their campus community to be silent on such issues. Rather, the statement advocates for counter-speech in response to speech with which members of the university community disagree, not censorship. Indeed, the statement makes clear that it is a fundamental obligation of an institution of higher education to teach students how to “openly and vigorously contest[] the ideas that they oppose.” It follows that such institutions would encourage members of the campus community to push back on the ideas of an invited speaker, and urge them to meet with the administration to discuss various university policies, in the spirit of open discourse and truth-seeking.

Finally, Ben-Porath’s piece sets up a false dichotomy between freedom of expression and inclusion of diverse viewpoints. “Endorsement of the Chicago Principles,” she writes, “comes at the expense of the reasonable demands from people on campuses who argue that free speech that protects the expression of biased views creates an unequal burden that they are made to carry — especially as free speech today is too often used as a political tool by the right.”

Here, Ben-Porath has arrived at the inevitable destination of all such arguments against freedom of speech: the argument that speech limitations of some kind would simply be better than guaranteeing free speech on equal terms for every individual student.

Further, history has demonstrated that minority or dissenting voices are often those that benefit in the long run from robust debate and discourse, while restrictions on speech have been routinely wielded against marginalized groups. FIRE’s own case archives demonstrate that free speech is not just “a political tool used by the right.” (Though if somehow only people on “the right” or “the left” had been the ones taking advantage of it, it would be no less important.) In the last year alone, FIRE has successfully defended the rights of many faculty and students on the opposite end of the political spectrum. FIRE vindicated the rights of a Fresno State University professor who tweeted about the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush, a student who was detained for distributing flyers that read “Shut Down Capitalism,” a Drexel University professor who was investigated for his tweet mocking the concept of “White Genocide,” and a Rutgers University professor who was punished for posting on Facebook about “resigning from the white race.” Without the First Amendment and the principles embodied by the Chicago Statement, the right of students and faculty to “discuss any problem that presents itself” would be far less secure. Whether attacks on freedom of expression come from the right or the left, the First Amendment protects the right to express dissenting or controversial opinions — and, in turn, the right to respond to those opinions.

Colleges and universities that have committed themselves to upholding the principles outlined in the Chicago Statement have indeed prioritized educating students in an inclusive way, thus responding to the “reasonable demands” of those who argue that free speech excludes particular minority groups. Purdue University, an early Chicago Statement adopter, provides extensive orientation programming aimed not only at educating students about free speech rights, but also about real-life scenarios they may face on campus that test the university’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity.

Other Chicago Statement schools, such as the University of Missouri, have held symposia as a way of continuing the dialogue about how freedom of expression intersects with campus issues of race, tolerance, and diversity. As mentioned earlier, many institutions have included various campus stakeholders, such as students, faculty, and staff, in the process of crafting a free speech statement unique to that academic community. In this way, the university does more that just adopt a statement of principles; it finds a way to educate its students about how to implement these values in action on a daily basis.

As Ben-Porath aptly states, the adoption of the Chicago Statement is best understood as the beginning of the work to improve the campus climate for free expression, not the end. FIRE is dedicated to helping students, faculty, and administrators achieve precisely that goal.