Five years of the ‘Chicago Statement’: What have we learned? Part 3

January 22, 2021

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final post in a multi-part series reflecting on the impact of the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” at the University of Chicago (better known as the “Chicago Statement”), which was released in January 2015. Since then, FIRE has successfully advocated for colleges and universities across the nation to adopt the statement themselves in order to express their commitment to freedom of expression.


In this final installment of FIRE’s series recounting the impact and lessons learned in the five years since the Chicago Statement was released and embraced by many institutions of higher education across the country, we explore its impact on individual campuses. 

One question we often get from free speech advocates and skeptics alike relates to the tangible impact of adopting this type of policy statement: 

What discernable improvements have been made on campuses that have adopted a version of the Chicago Statement to prove that it’s more than just a flowery statement of principles with no impact? 

It’s a fair and important question, and FIRE has anecdotally observed two important areas of positive impact worth highlighting in this post: speech codes and administrative behavior.  

General speech code impact

Many colleges and universities that adopted the Chicago Statement followed up by also improving their speech codes — institutional policies that restrict protected student speech. By doing so, Chicago Statement schools demonstrate they are doing more than just “talking the talk,” saying they are prioritizing free speech, they are “walking the walk” too by making real improvements to their internal policies

Nationally, the quality of speech codes vary widely. FIRE uses a traffic light-inspired rating system to rate speech codes based on how they could be used to punish student speech. Policies that get our highest, “green light” rating don’t seriously imperil speech; vague policies that could be abused to punish speech get a cautionary, “yellow light” rating, and policies with a clear and substantial restriction on student speech get our lowest ranking, a “red light” rating. (You can read more about exactly what each rating means here.) 

In our latest Spotlight on Speech Codes 2021 report, which surveys speech codes at 478 colleges and universities across the country, FIRE found:

  • 21.3% earn an overall red light rating
  • 65.3% earn an overall yellow light rating
  • 11.7% earn an overall green light rating

In comparison, in the admittedly smaller sample of 79 colleges and universities that have endorsed a version of the Chicago Statement:

  • 10.1% earn an overall red light rating
  • 36.7% earn an overall yellow light rating
  • 12.7% earn an overall green light rating

Of course, these two samples should not be viewed as comparing apples to apples. First, the sample of Chicago Statement schools is significantly smaller in size. Additionally, one must note that 17 institutions (21.5%) that have adopted the Chicago Statement are not rated in our Spotlight database, and 15 of the adoptions are by university systems (18.9%) that have multiple schools rated, so they are not included in the percentages above. (For example, FIRE rates multiple institutions in the State University System of Florida, each earning various ratings, including three green light schools.) 

University of Florida Sign EntranceThe University of Florida is among FIRE's standout schools for free speech — having adopted a version of the Chicago Statement and boasting a green light rating for its policies. (Bryan Pollard / Shutterstock.com)

Of additional note, many Chicago Statement adoptions are by faculty bodies rather than the administration at large, which some would argue negates the indicator that a free speech policy statement reflects an institution’s dedication to free expression. 

Despite these caveats, it is hard not to notice that in this small sample, nearly 13% of institutions (10 of 79) that have adopted a version of the Chicago Statement also earn FIRE’s highest, green light rating.

Importantly, this number is even higher than reflected here because we tally university system adoptions as a single adoption. That means there are additional individual institutions within those systems that have adopted a version of the Chicago Statement, that can claim membership on this elite list. These green light institutions are Purdue University, McNeese State University, the University of Florida, the University of North Florida, Florida State University, and the University of Colorado Boulder. 

Revised speech codes

For our annual Spotlight on Speech Codes report, FIRE catalogs changes in speech codes at each of the institutions we rated in the past year. Policies undergo revision for a myriad of reasons: pressure from free speech advocates like FIRE and others, as part of the university’s annual policy review process, in response to changes in the law or administrative priorities, advocacy from students and faculty, or a combination of those factors. Thus, it’s often difficult to pinpoint the exact impetus for a policy revision. However, two examples from the past year stand out as policy changes correlated to the institution’s adoption of a free speech policy statement.

The University of Maine’s revision of its “Free Speech and Assembly” policy is an apt example. In 2017, the Board of Trustees for the University of Maine System adopted the Chicago Statement. After working with FIRE in response to our letter naming the policy FIRE’s “Speech Code of the Month” for June 2019, the University of Maine (a member of the system) revised its “Free Speech and Assembly” policy to include language from the systemwideFree Speech, Academic Freedom, & Civility” statement, which actively embraces freedom of expression. The policy now earns a green light rating and reinforces the University of Maine’s commitment to free speech at both the campus and system level.

In statewide trends, the Chicago Statement received one of its highest profile endorsements when the governor of Florida asked all state institutions of higher education to adopt a free speech resolution in the model of the Chicago Statement in 2019. All 12 presidents of the State University System of Florida’s member institutions signed on to the “Statement on Free Expression.” Shortly thereafter, FIRE worked with Florida State University to earn an overall green light rating, joining two fellow State University System of Florida green light institutions, the University of Florida and the University of North Florida.

Standout institutions demonstrate heartening trend

Notably, there are now 15 institutions that both earn a green light rating and have adopted a version of the Chicago Statement. A trend we first highlighted in our Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019 report, this positive trend has continued.

At the time we wrote: 

Increasingly, more green light institutions have endorsed principled statements of free expression. This elite group of colleges and universities may boast not only that they do not maintain any speech codes that restrict the free speech rights of their students, but also that they have actively committed themselves to embracing and encouraging the free exchange of ideas on their campuses.

Since the 2019 report, when 5 institutions could claim this elite status, we’ve tripled the number of institutions with this distinction. Now, 15 institutions can proudly say that they maintain no restrictive speech codes and have actively prioritized free expression:

Colorado Mesa Entrance SignColorado Mesa University in Grand Junction earned its FIRE green light rating this fall. For good measure, it also adopted a version of the Chicago Statement. (EQRoy /Shutterstock.com)

In the state of Colorado, free speech on college campuses has enjoyed a boon. Two institutions in the state earned our highest overall green light rating in 2020 alone, Colorado Mesa University and the University of Colorado Boulder. Speech code improvements weren’t the only form of progress made at these institutions: CMU adopted the Chicago Statement in combination with earning its green light, and the Board of Regents for the University of Colorado system adopted the Chicago Statement back in 2018.

FIRE hopes to continue to welcome schools to our growing lists of green light institutions and Chicago Statement institutions. We predict we will see more and more schools making these positive changes in tandem, like Colorado Mesa University did this past fall. When an institution of higher education makes a public announcement to prioritize free expression as so many have by adopting a version of the Chicago Statement, it makes sense that the next logical step would be to ensure that no speech codes exist to restrict the expression the institution has pledged to encourage and prioritize. 

Impact on administrative behavior

In addition to policy impacts, FIRE has also observed anecdotal evidence of a prior commitment to a free speech policy statement having a positive impact on administrative behavior.

Arizona State University — a dual green light and Chicago Statement institution — provides an example of an administration that has fully embraced free speech. 

“Freedom of speech is a hallmark of any public university,” its free speech resource page reminds students in the first sentence. The page also provides links to the university’s Chicago Statement endorsement, related policies and procedures, FIRE’s Free Speech Orientation program, as well as other materials. The university is taking a leading role in actively embracing and educating students about their First Amendment rights.

Just as importantly as educating students about freedom of expression, many institutions have lived up to the Chicago Statement’s lofty promises. These institutions vowed to provide “all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn,” and many university leaders have discovered just how challenging this commitment is in practice, when a speech controversy occurs. Happily, Chicago Statement schools consistently rise to the challenge.

“When an institution of higher education makes a public announcement to prioritize free expression as so many have by adopting a version of the Chicago Statement, it makes sense that the next logical step would be to ensure that no speech codes exist to restrict the expression the institution has pledged to encourage and prioritize.”

Kansas State University, another institution that both earns a green light rating and has adopted the Chicago Statement, upheld its commitments this past summer when faced with significant public pressure to punish a student for an offensive (but protected) tweet. “Congratulations to George Floyd on being drug free for an entire month!” the student wrote, approximately one month after the Minneapolis man was killed by police. Floyd’s death sparked a summer of nationwide turmoil and protest over racial injustice, and unsurprisingly the student’s tweet struck a nerve: KSU President Richard B. Myers received immediate calls to discipline the student and a petition to ban his conservative student group — America First Students — from campus. 

FIRE quickly sent a letter to Myers reminding KSU of its obligations under the First Amendment and its public commitment to free expression in the university’s “Statement on Free Speech and Expression.” KSU ultimately responded with a “more speech” approach to calls for the student’s expulsion, firmly stating that the university would uphold the First Amendment: [W]hile these messages are disrespectful and abhorrent, we cannot violate the law.”

Similarly, Miami University resisted calls to punish controversial  — but protected speech by a professor during FIRE’s busiest summer ever

Also notable is the ongoing dedication of the University of Chicago itself to freedom of expression. When it comes to administrative responses to calls for disciplinary action for protected — expression, UChicago’s leadership could give a master class. Last fall, the university was under pressure to discipline a professor who criticized departmental and university-wide approaches to diversity and inclusion initiatives. UChicago President Robert Zimmer responded swiftly with an unwavering, full-throated defense of free speech. 

“As articulated in the Chicago Principles, the University of Chicago is deeply committed to the values of academic freedom and the free expression of ideas,” Zimmer wrote. “Faculty are free to agree or disagree with any policy or approach of the University, its departments, schools or divisions without being subject to discipline, reprimand or other form of punishment.” 

Other colleges and universities would do well to follow Zimmer’s lead. Indeed, speech controversies are easier to manage when firm governing principles are in place ahead of time.

Conclusion

Although the rate of institutions adopting free speech policy statements has slowed since 2015, FIRE has observed several trends over the past five years related to the Chicago Statement indicating free speech is alive and well on America’s college campuses. We hope to see an increased number of green light institutions — and other institutions — adopting the Chicago Statement. 

We expect Chicago Statement schools to continue setting a national example: Even under pressure to do otherwise, colleges and universities can firmly uphold the bedrock principles that are the foundation of higher education and our democracy. 


Thanks for following along in this series reflecting and exploring the impact of the Chicago Statement. You can read Part 1 of the series to read more about adoption trends and Part 2 to read more about common critiques of the principles. You can learn more about Chicago Statement advocacy and FIRE’s speech code resources. You can reach us directly at speechcodes@thefire.org


Cases:  FIRE Launches Campaign in Support of University of Chicago Free Speech Statement