University Of Chicago’s New Free Speech Policy Actually Protects Free Speech

January 14, 2015

By Tim Cushing at TechDirt

Free speech and higher education seem to be at odds. The notion of expanding minds, exposing prejudices and encouraging critical thinking has taken a backseat to a bizarre “offense-free” ideal in recent years, something that can partially be traced back to our own government’s insertion into the (stunted) conversation. Tying federal funding to sexual harassment policies is definitely part of the problem. The other part appears to be a misguided thought process that equates inclusion with the elimination of any speech that might negatively affect someone. Rather than actually deal with speech issues on a case-by-case basis, universities have instead enacted broadly-written bans on campus speech.

The University of Chicago, however, isn’t jumping on this particular bandwagon. Its new speech policy is more of manifesto than a policy. It’s assertive and it’s comprehensive — not in its restrictions, but in its liberties. It’s the outgrowth of a study performed by the school and the conclusions it reaches are decidedly contrary to the prevailing collegiate winds.

The committee behind the report and policy is chaired by Geoffrey Stone, a professor specializing in constitutional law (and member of the administration’s intelligence review task force). Stone is a fierce defender of civil liberties, previously having taken Arizona legislators to task for their First Amendment-steamrolling cyberbullying/harassment bill.

The statement [pdf link] makes it clear from the outset that the University has many duties to its students, but ensuring them an offense-free environment isn’t one of them.

Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

There are exceptions, of course, but they are narrow and specific.

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.

After making the few exceptions clear, the committee’s statement returns to championing the freedom of speech, reminding students that the correct response to controversial speech will always be more speech, rather than less.

[T[he University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.

In other words, the hecklers among the student body have just been stripped of their veto power. Don’t like what’s being said? Use your own voice and say why. Attempts to shut down or shout down opposing views won’t be tolerated.

Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.

TL; DR:

[T]he University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

If there’s still any doubt as to the free speech protections contained in this statement, it can be dispelled by the fact that none other than FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) hasoffered its whole-hearted support of the University’s new free speech policy. When you’ve made FIRE happy, you’ve done “free speech policy” correctly. None of this “free speech zone” crap or “free speech EXCEPT” followed by exceptions that neuter or completely obliterate the rule.

It’s a rare thing to see a university tells it students that it won’t protect them from others — and that it will treat them adults. Life often isn’t pretty and the best thing an institute of higher education can do is prepare its students for this inevitability. The over-protective parent route taken by so many others harms everyone involved by stunting their growth as humans and by punishing speech that is protected the First Amendment.

Schools: University of Chicago