University of Chicago Student Journalists Lament School’s Support of Free Speech
Last week, the University of Chicago’s (UC’s) Committee on Freedom of Expression published a free speech policy statement, which “guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” FIRE proudly endorsed the statement and recommends that other universities adopt a similar statement.
However, the statement failed to impress those who should understand the necessity of free speech on UC’s campus the most: the editorial board of UC’s student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon. In an editorial last week, the Maroon editorial board committed one of the worst “We believe in free speech, but…” fouls, stating that UC must defend open discourse but must also silence “hateful” speech to protect the sensibilities of the campus community.
That’s right: According to the editorial board, an ideal free speech policy would allow only “productive” expression (whatever that means in practice) while “eradicating hate speech”:
Freedom of expression is essential to a productive and creative learning environment. This means students must be prepared to listen to opinions that differ from their own. Speech that challenges commonly held assumptions can be beneficial. Hate speech benefits no one because it seeks only to tear down, not to build up. The University needs to directly address hate speech for the good of productive discourse.
For the editorial board of a student newspaper at one of the nation’s top universities, these students display a shocking lack of understanding of the importance of protecting free speech, even when someone may subjectively deem that speech “hateful.” In the course of heated debates over controversial or divisive issues, students say—and journalists write!—all kinds of things that may deeply offend others’ sensibilities. This is precisely why the right to free speech must be jealously guarded—after all, few people are calling for the censorship of speech that is inoffensive. As the Supreme Court wrote in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949):
[F]ree speech … may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.
To understand how a policy like this could inhibit the open discussion of controversial issues on campus, one need look no further than the University of Chicago itself. This past May, UC students started a Change.org petition demanding a “hate speech” ban after noted columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage used the word “tranny” in the context of a conversation on campus about the reclamation of slurs and their empowering potential. To create the “culture of inclusivity” the Maroon editorial board desires, speech like Savage’s would likely be banned because of its potential to offend, and students would be unable to engage in important conversations like this one.
What the editorial board apparently failed to consider is how a policy banning “hate speech,” intended to silence controversial speakers like Dan Savage, could be used against them. They want UC’s administration to ban speech to protect the sensitivities of others, so what would happen if the Maroon published an article critical of the university that school officials deemed hateful or unproductive, or unlikely to “increase the quality and diversity of discourse on campus?” Should the Maroon lose its funding? Should the author of the article be expelled? After all, as the Maroon editorial states, it is the university’s job to decide “where the lines between acceptable and unacceptable speech fall.”
FIRE is not alone in criticizing the Maroon editorial board for its opposition to UC’s free speech policy. Minding the Campus’s John Leo and Reason’s Robby Soave also penned responses to the “staggeringly unenlightened” editorial, as did UC student Max Bloom, who reminded his fellow students and the Maroon editorial board:
If a broad variety of speech can be reasonably construed as forbidden hate speech, authority figures would have a huge amount of power to determine the purview of tolerated speech on campus.
Many students dedicate their college years to eradicating the type of policies the Maroon editorial board is advocating because they understand that college administrators are imperfect, and sometimes malicious, and they could use these policies to target students who disagree with them. (Just ask former Valdosta State University student Hayden Barnes.) Because of UC’s new free speech policy, the Maroon editorial board won’t have to learn that lesson. Unfortunately, as evidenced by FIRE’s ever-growing list of cases, many students at other schools are not so lucky and are forced to litigate for years simply to win back their fundamental rights.
FIRE hopes the editorial board of the Maroon reconsiders its misguided position and offers a better statement on the importance of free speech on campus.