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Is DePaul America’s Worst School for Free Speech?

Every year when FIRE publishes its “Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list, we remind readers that it is not a ranked list, but rather a compilation—in no particular order—of the year’s worst free speech offenders. Occasionally, however, we do wonder which college or university would deserve a spot at the top of a ranked list. Yesterday provided such an occasion, as we sent a letter to DePaul University outlining several months of free speech violations spanning multiple incidents and contemplated the university’s history of violating its community’s expressive rights.

DePaul’s most recent series of missteps began in April, when students chalked pro-Trump messages on the university’s Lincoln Park campus. After some were offended by the chalking—including the grounds crew who erased the messages—DePaul Vice President of Student Affairs Eugene Zdziarski emailed the student community banning any partisan chalking on campus. The justification? That as a tax-exempt entity, DePaul is prohibited from participating in political campaigns and supporting candidates for office.

But as FIRE has repeatedly explained every election cycle, that argument holds no water. Tax-exempt colleges and universities are themselves prohibited from endorsing candidates and participating in campaigns, but their students most certainly are not. And, as precedent from the Supreme Court of the United States as well as relevant Internal Revenue Service materials make clear, students are presumed to speak for themselves and not for their university. The fear that chalking—a time-honored college student tradition—would be attributed to the university itself rather than students is overwrought at best, and disingenuous at worst. More likely is that DePaul simply wanted to avoid potentially offensive chalking during a heated election season—to the detriment of its students’ civic engagement, which the university ought to be fostering rather than stifling.

The hits kept coming for DePaul students as the spring quarter rolled on. As a response to the university’s reaction to the chalkings, the DePaul College Republicans invited controversial activist and journalist Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus, drawing strong opposition from many on campus who alleged that the event would perpetuate “both hate speech and systemic oppression on campus.”

The event organizers believed they were in the clear after they reserved two adjoining rooms and agreed to pay for eight security officers—contracted by DePaul—to staff the event. But less than two weeks before the event, DePaul informed the College Republicans that it was cancelling one of the room reservations—more than halving the event’s maximum capacity—and drastically curtailing Yiannopoulos’ speaking time. DePaul also demanded that the College Republicans hire 12 additional security officers. The new maximum capacity for the event would bring the ratio to approximately one security officer for every 13 attendees. For reference, DePaul’s guidelines for event security establish a range of one officer for every 50-75 attendees. After pushback from the College Republicans, DePaul restored the reservation for the second room and dropped its security demands to “only” eight additional officers (at a cost of nearly $1,000 to the College Republicans)—a ratio of one officer for every 34 attendees, for those keeping count, which is still well above the university’s own guidelines.

FIRE’s letter explains that imposing an onerous price tag on speech because it might offend others who would cause a disruption is antithetical to the principles of free speech that DePaul so proudly extols. As the Supreme Court stated more than two decades ago: “Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.”

Nevertheless, with no other choice, the College Republicans acceded to the university’s demands. One might think that with these substantial last-minute burdens met, the College Republicans would finally be able to hold their event despite the university’s best efforts to derail it. One would be wrong.

Shortly after Yiannopoulos began to speak on May 24, student protesters began to disrupt the event by blowing whistles, screaming, and taking over the stage. One even took a swing at Yiannopoulos. The security officers that DePaul had forced the College Republicans to pay nearly $2,000 for sat idly by and did not intervene. With no recourse, the event organizers called the police to address the disruption. But upon arriving, DePaul administrators reportedly instructed the Chicago police officers not to intervene. With the disruption continuing unabated, the event ended prematurely with Yiannopoulos leading a march to DePaul President Dennis Holtschneider’s office to protest what had just occurred.

Because their event had been curtailed, the College Republicans re-invited Yiannopoulos to speak on campus on September 20. This time, DePaul was more transparent. In a July 7 email to the student organizers, Zdziarski wrote, point-blank:

By this message, please be advised that the University is denying the request for the room and for Mr. Yiannopoulos to speak on our campus.  Having consulted with Public Safety and having reviewed last Spring’s events, it is clear that it would not be possible for DePaul to provide the security that would be required for such an event.

Further, having reviewed a full-length video of the event, it is our opinion that Mr. Yiannopoulos’ words and behavior contained inflammatory-speech, contributed to a hostile environment, and incited similar behavior from the crowd in attendance.

Let’s take a closer look at these untoward justifications.

First, Zdziarski says that Yiannopoulos cannot speak on campus due to security concerns raised by the event in May. That’s right: DePaul says that Yiannopoulos cannot be invited to speak because the 16 security officers that the university forced the College Republicans to pay for did not do their job, and the police officers who were called to the scene were instructed not to intervene. If DePaul has security concerns, they are of DePaul’s own making. After all, the students had no choice in who to hire to provide the security. The College Republicans complied with the university’s demands, and DePaul cannot be allowed to use its own failure to independently provide security (and its alleged deliberate interference with the police effort to restore order) as an excuse to deny them the ability to invite a speaker of their choosing.

What’s more, DePaul wielded the security justification against a separate student group as well. In July, when the DePaul Young Americans for Freedom sought to invite conservative journalist Ben Shapiro to speak at an October event, DePaul Vice President for Facilities Operations Bob Janis told the group that because of security concerns raised by Shapiro’s speeches at other universities (presumably referring to the disruptions caused by protesters during Shapiro’s lecture at California State University, Los Angeles), he too is banned from speaking on campus. DePaul’s actions here need little explaining.

DePaul has capitulated to the same hostile mob that the Supreme Court warned could not be used to justify burdens or bans on speech. In doing so, it has sent a message to its students that all it takes to prevent someone you disagree with from speaking on campus is to cause, or threaten to cause, disruption. Those disrupting will escape without penalty, and any controversial speakers—even those who have not yet generated any controversy at DePaul itself—will be swiftly banned at the expense of ideological diversity on campus. For shame.

Second is Zdziarski’s ban on Yiannopoulos because his speech was “inflammatory” and “contributed to a hostile environment.” Alluding to discriminatory harassment standards is a disingenuous ploy, and not a very clever one. No student was forced to attend the event; if they were offended by Yiannopoulos’ speech, they could simply stay away. And certainly no “hostile environment” is created by the knowledge that someone, somewhere on campus, is saying something that might deeply offend them.

Our letter explains why this reasoning is deeply flawed. Put simply, if DePaul University bans speech that is “inflammatory,” then its promises of freedom of expression are utterly meaningless and its professed affinity for freedom of inquiry is mere lip service, if not an outright lie. DePaul would do well to remember that many of today’s deeply-held ideas and societal norms began as inflammatory. As outgoing Chapman University President Jim Doti wrote on September 4:

The place of the university is unique in our society. If not here, where else can ideas once thought out-of-bounds, and offensive to prevailing views and sensibilities, be evaluated on their merits, perhaps to be tossed aside, or perhaps to display a glimmer of gold among some silt? Where else but here? Without such freedom, the theory of evolution would still be banned, and now-discarded theories, like eugenics, never disproved.

If DePaul were truly committed to freedom of expression and inquiry, its actions would reflect Doti’s sentiments. But they do not.

This is all bad enough from a free speech standpoint. But it is also deeply hypocritical, and illustrates a double standard that has persisted at DePaul for more than a decade. In 2005, the DePaul College Republicans, led by the group’s then-president Nick Hahn, created posters criticizing controversial professor Ward Churchill, who had been invited to speak on campus. DePaul refused to approve the posters, stating that the college did not approve “propaganda,” and then threatened the group with suspension when they posted the flyers anyway. In response to FIRE’s letter expressing concern about the censorship, the very same President Holtschneider wrote:

Advertisements of speakers are posted. Denunciations of speakers are not posted. Disagreements with invited speakers may be expressed in other venues, such as the student newspaper, dialogue sessions, and public protest opportunities, all of which Mr. Hahn or his colleagues, to their great credit, used to good effect.

DePaul welcomes speakers of a wide variety of positions on a wide variety of topics every year. The university is committed to working with any student group in bringing speakers to campus. Students have the opportunity to hear these ideas first-hand from the women and men - sometimes famous and at other times infamous - who advocate them. In many cases, students will reject these ideas, and rightly so. But they will do so after having heard them first-hand. DePaul has a long history of supporting academic freedom and free speech. It would be a mistake to characterize the campus otherwise, based on the factually incorrect report you have received. We ardently support an open marketplace of ideas but insist that our faculty, staff and students adhere to the responsibility for maintaining an atmosphere of civilized and tolerant discourse, regardless of the speaker’s affiliations and opinions.

Is DePaul really committed to working with student groups to bring speakers, “sometimes famous and at other times infamous” to campus? Is DePaul really committed to ensuring that rejection of speakers’ ideas occurs after having heard the speaker out? Does DePaul really “support an open marketplace of ideas?” Does it really insist that its community maintain an atmosphere for discourse regardless of a speaker’s affiliations and opinions?

Perhaps when it comes to Ward Churchill, but apparently not when it comes to Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro. In those instances, it seems that DePaul is very content to allow students to shut down a speaker without hearing them out, then ban the speaker. DePaul’s idea of a marketplace of ideas clearly needs adjustment. Perhaps DePaul only believes in a marketplace of ideas for certain ideas and opinions. That would be its right as a private university. But if that’s the case, DePaul really ought to say so.

And there have been numerous cases in between now and then supporting the conclusion that DePaul has a viewpoint discrimination problem: In 2006, DePaul charged a student group with harassment for holding an event that satirized affirmative action. In 2010, a student organization advocating for the reform of marijuana laws was denied recognition because the university disagreed with its message. In 2013, DePaul charged a student with conduct violations for publicizing the names of students who had vandalized his group’s pro-life display on campus.

So is DePaul the worst college or university for freedom of expression? We might not be ready to make the definitive call just yet—there’s certainly a lot of competition. But you can consider the evidence here, then check out our Spotlight page for DePaul, and reach your own conclusions.

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