The Rules of University Conduct, found in Chapter XLIV of the Statutes of Columbia University, are intended to ensure that all members of our community may engage in our cherished traditions of free expression and open debate. The University, as a forum for the pursuit and attainment of knowledge in every field of human endeavor, has a special role in fostering free inquiry. A principal reason why universities have endured and flourished over centuries is that they provide a place for ideas to be tested, for values to be questioned, and for minds to be changed with as few constraints as possible. Like society at large, but even more so, the University has a vital interest in fostering a climate in which nothing is immune from scrutiny. And Columbia, in particular, has a long tradition of valuing dissent and controversy and in welcoming the clash of opinions onto the campus.
To be true to these principles, the University cannot and will not rule any subject or form of expression out of order on the ground that it is objectionable, offensive, immoral, or untrue. Viewpoints will inevitably conflict, and members of the University community will disagree with and may even take offense at both the opinions expressed by others and the manner in which they are expressed. But the role of the University is not to shield individuals from positions that they find unwelcome. Rather, the University is a place for received wisdom and firmly held views to be tested, and tested again, so that members of the University community can listen, challenge each other, and be challenged in return.
The University recognizes only two kinds of limitations on the right of freedom of expression, and both are to be narrowly construed. First, the University reasonably regulates the time, place, and manner of certain forms of public expression. In keeping with the University’s dedication to the principle of uninhibited discourse, these regulations do not turn on the content of any message that might be expressed. Rather, they are necessary not because they would prevent any opinion from being stated or heard, but, to the contrary, because they protect the rights of free speech, free press, and academic freedom. Just as all members of the University community have the right to speak, to study, research, to teach, and to express their own views, so must they allow others in the community to do the same. The right to demonstrate, for example, cannot come at the expense of the right of others to counter-demonstrate, to teach, or to engage in academic pursuits requiring uninterrupted attention. As is true of the larger community in which the University sits, the University must protect the rights of all to engage in their callings and express their own views.
Second, the University may restrict expression that constitutes a genuine threat of harassment, that unjustifiably invades an individual’s privacy, or that falsely defames a specific individual. These forms of expression stand apart because they do little if anything to advance the University’s truth-seeking function and they impair the ability of individuals at the University to participate in that function. The University has an obligation to assure members of its community that they can continue in their academic pursuits without fear for their personal security or other serious intrusions on their ability to teach and to study.
Because of the University’s function as an incubator of ideas and viewpoints, the principle of free expression must be jealously guarded. As President Bollinger has noted, “Our great institutions of higher education bear a special social responsibility for educating people to possess a nimble cast of mind, able to grasp multiple perspectives and the full complexity of a subject. And for centuries, great societies of all types have understood that this kind of intellectual capacity is essential to progress. But never have critical thinking and tolerance been more important for individual well-being and for our collective prosperity.” Every member of our community therefore retains the right to demonstrate, to rally, to picket, to circulate petitions and distribute ideas, to partake in debates, to invite outsiders to participate, and to retain the freedom to express opinions on any subject whatsoever, even when such expression invites controversy and sharp scrutiny. Although the University values the civil and courteous exchange of viewpoints, it does not limit discussion because the ideas expressed might be thought offensive, immoral, disrespectful, or even dangerous. We expect that members of our community will engage in public discussions that may confront convention, and free expression would mean little if it did not include the right to express what others may reject or loathe.