By the beginning of the new year, the University of Chicago (UC) has pledged to revise its free speech policy in response to the wave of free speech controversies occurring at colleges across the country.
Like many other universities, UC is no stranger to controversy over free speech. Just a few months ago, the UC campus erupted in debate over gay rights activist Dan Savage’s use of the word “tranny” during an event at UC’s Institute of Politics (IOP). Although Savage used the term in a discussion about reclaiming slurs as a tool of empowerment, a student at the event demanded that Savage use the phrase “t-slur” instead. A petition from another UC student then circulated calling for IOP to ban “slurs and hate speech” from future events.
Even if these students weren’t completely ignoring the context of the use of the word, their demands for censorship would still be troubling. However, IOP responded appropriately and reaffirmed the institute’s support for speech that some listeners could find deeply troubling or offensive. In a statement, IOP declared:
Free expression is a fundamental value of the University of Chicago, based on the belief that knowledge grows out of the analysis and competition of ideas. The University seeks the broadest diversity possible of ideas, experiences and perspectives, and seeks to create a climate in which all members of our community are free to express their ideas, which are all judged on their merit.
Now, a UC committee led by Geoffrey Stone, a UC law professor and noted constitutional law expert, plans to “draft a statement reflecting the University’s commitment to and tolerance of multiple forms of free expression.” According to Stone, the policy is being written because UC’s “president thought it would be useful to have one, but it was not triggered by anything in particular at Chicago.” However, if Stone’s committee publishes a statement with a defense of free speech that’s as strong as IOP’s response to the Savage controversy, then it will be a success.
FIRE applauds UC’s plan to protect freedom of expression on campus, and we hope to do the same for its revised free speech statement when it is unveiled. At the same time, we hope that UC will extend this concern for individual liberties towards its seven “yellow light” policies, which continue to pose a threat to students’ free speech rights. FIRE would be more than happy to work with UC’s administration toward revising these policies, and we stand ready to help at any time.