In an editorial yesterday, USA TODAY encouraged colleges and universities to follow the University of Chicago’s lead in adopting broad speech protections on campus. Citing FIRE’s speech-code tracking Spotlight database, the editorial board wrote:
[C]ollege administrators are often too happy to oblige their fragile students with speech codes, speech zones, disinvitations of controversial speakers and heavy-handed sanctions on anyone who dares to defy the strict rules — rules that seldom stand up to legal scrutiny when someone challenges them in court. More than half of 437 institutions surveyed last year by FIRE, a free-speech advocacy group, had restrictive speech codes; one in six confined anything that smacked of students’ free expression to a special zone, often some out-of-the-way patch of campus land.
In January, the University of Chicago revolted against this dangerous trend, reaffirming its commitment to “completely free and open discussion of ideas,” even when some or even most members of the community find the ideas “offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed.” The rationale? University President Hanna Holborn Gray put it well: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think.”
USA Today, which boasts the third-largest newspaper circulation in the country, advocated for wider adoption of the policy after President Obama’s Monday town hall meeting at which he chastised students seeking to be “coddled and protected” from views they don’t like.
“That’s not how we learn,” the president said, encouraging college students not to silence objectionable speakers, but instead to “have an argument with them.”
The University of Chicago’s statement, in relevant part, provides:
Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. … [I]t 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.
FIRE formally endorsed the Chicago principles in January.