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Professor Geoffrey Stone Explains the Importance of the Chicago Statement

By August 27, 2016

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday, Professor Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago (UChicago) explains the importance, necessity, and practicality of the committee report on free expression he and other UChicago faculty members authored last year. The “Chicago Statement,” as the report has come to be known, has proven widely influential, and has since been adopted by other institutions and faculty bodies nationwide and endorsed by FIRE.

Explaining why universities should recognize the core principles undergirding the statement, Professor Stone writes:

First, bitter experience has taught that even the ideas we hold to be most certain often turn out to be wrong. As confident as we might be in our own wisdom, certainty is different from truth. The core obligation of a university is to invite challenge to the accepted wisdom.

Second, history shows that suppression of speech breeds suppression of speech. If today I am permitted to silence those whose views I find distasteful, I have then opened the door to allow others down the road to silence me. The neutral principle, no suppression of ideas, protects us all.

Third, a central precept of free expression is the possibility of a chilling effect. That problem is especially acute today because of social media. Students and faculty members used to be willing to take controversial positions because the risks were relatively modest. After all, one could say something provocative, and the statement soon disappeared from view. But now, every comment you make can be circulated to the world and called up with a click by prospective employers or graduate schools or neighbors. The potential costs of speaking courageously, of taking controversial positions, of taking risks, is greater than ever. Indeed, according to a recent survey, about half of American college students now say that it is unsafe for them to express unpopular views. Many faculty members clearly share that sentiment. In this climate, it is especially important for universities to stand up for free expression.

FIRE strongly agrees, informed by our experiences from 17 years of defending student and faculty speech.

Importantly, Professor Stone grapples with the potential impact of unfettered expression on students “who feel vulnerable, marginalized, silenced, and demeaned”:

At the same time, a university has to recognize that in our society, flawed as it is, the costs of free speech will fall most heavily on those who feel the most marginalized and unwelcome. All of us feel that way sometimes, but the individuals who bear the brunt of free speech — at least of certain types of free speech — often include racial minorities; religious minorities; women; gay people, lesbians, and transsexuals; and immigrants. Universities must be sensitive to that reality.

Although they should not attempt to “solve” this problem by censorship, universities should support students who feel vulnerable, marginalized, silenced, and demeaned. They should help them learn how to speak up, how to respond effectively, how to challenge those whose attitudes, whose words, and whose beliefs offend and appall them. The world is not a safe space, and we must enable our graduates to win the battles they’ll have to fight in years to come.

Here, Professor Stone in part echoes Professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School, who wrote earlier this year in The New York Times about the importance of teaching students to challenge racism without “minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved.” Hailing the “difficult but earnest and probing conversations [that] blossomed” at campuses nationwide following student protests against racism, Professor Kennedy argues that students are more than strong enough to effectively answer speech they dislike with more speech, not censorship, thus realizing their own power and rejecting what Kennedy deems “self-diminishment.”

Professor Stone’s essay, adapted from a keynote address he delivered to the Scholars at Risk Network 2016 Global Congress, should be read in full. Afterward, be sure to watch FIRE’s 2015 interview with Professor Stone, below:

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