Last week, the Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) Faculty Senate Council endorsed a statement affirming the university’s “unwavering commitment to freedom of expression and free exchange of ideas.”
With this vote, WashU joins more than a dozen other institutions at which faculty or administrative bodies have adopted a version of the 2015 University of Chicago policy statement (Chicago Statement) on free speech and academic freedom—which FIRE has called the gold standard for such commitments to freedom of expression at colleges and universities.
The WashU faculty council statement begins by quoting from the institution’s mission statement, which asserts its primary aims: “to discover and disseminate knowledge, and protect the freedom of inquiry through research, teaching and learning.” The statement then explains that “[a] commitment to open exchange of ideas and information is fundamental to achieving these goals.”
Importantly, the statement goes on to provide that “[t]he university should avoid all forms of punitive action in response to the expression of ideas,” explicitly including “even those that are offensive or unpopular.” This commitment echoes the Chicago Statement’s declaration that “it 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.”
The WashU faculty council statement also makes clear that the best response to offensive speech is further discussion—not censorship—saying that “[t]he university should encourage civil discussion through positive norms and examples, responding to speech that offends groups and members of the university community not by interdiction but by encouraging further discussion.”
Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Holden Thorp told WashU’s The Source that “[t]his principle applies not only to the experience in our classrooms, but to the overall experience of being a member of our community.”
“We simply cannot waver on the issue of open expression,” Thorp added.
We at FIRE commend the WashU faculty council for endorsing its version of the Chicago Statement, and are hopeful that this step will be the spark that leads the institution to reform its remaining speech codes. Provost Thorp’s declaration of unwavering support for open expression can only carry its full weight when these restrictive speech codes are reformed. As always, FIRE is ready to help.