“We’re not that kind of place”: Purdue (and the University of Chicago) stand up for free speech

May 16, 2015 • 3:00 pm
I am being inundated with reports of censorship on American college campuses (and some British ones, too). The perpetrators, it seems, are largely student groups rather than university administrators, although all too often administrators are complicit in stifling free speech.
What’s bizarre about the whole thing is that of all the places in the country, college campuses should have the fewest restrictions on free speech because (at least in theory!) colleges are places where you learn how to engage in the clash of ideas—a prerequisite for the best ideas (and the truth) to rise to the top.
Well, I’ve found that at least three schools are standing up for free speech in the way I like: an uncompromising approach that allows all speech except for that which incites violence or creates a climate of hatred for particular individuals (harassment). As PuffHo reports, Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana has become the first public university to endorse the “Chicago principles” of free speech, joining Princeton and the University of Chicago, with my own university being the place where these principles were forged.

The Purdue policy states, “It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.” Nearly identical language appears in the Chicago version.

“We looked at it, our trustees looked at it. We said, you know, this says exactly what needs to be said. We’re going to protect all kinds of speech, including the kind we think is ridiculous and completely wrong, and we’re going to insist everybody else respect — at least on our campus — people’s right to be heard,” Daniels said.

. . . Asked how he would respond if students attempted to un-invite a speaker at Purdue, Daniels answered, “I would politely tell them, ‘Thank you for your advice, but no, we’re not that kind of place.'”

You might want to read the University of Chicago’s “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression“, as it’s only a bit over two pages long and is quite eloquent. I was dimly aware that they were forging such a policy here, but didn’t realize that had actually produced a document. But they did, in January. The Committee was chaired by the estimable law school professor Geoff Stone, who I always thought would make a great Supreme Court justice (sadly, Congress is not in the mood for a liberal). And here are a few excerpts, which make me proud of my school.

The report first lays out the history of free speech at the U of C, quoting a number of University presidents who endorsed it, e.g.:

More recently, President Hanna Holborn Gray observed that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”

And then the heart of the document:

Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But 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. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

And here’s the sting in the tail:

Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

Do you hear that, Brandeis, Stanford, UCLA, The University of Maryland, the University of Michigan, and all the rest of you pusillanimous schools?

h/t: Jeff

48 thoughts on ““We’re not that kind of place”: Purdue (and the University of Chicago) stand up for free speech

  1. Jerry,
    Brave words from Mitch Daniels in defense of free speech at Purdue. Good for him, I guess, for standing up for free speech on campus.
    However, you should know that Mitch Daniels’ record on defending free speech is extremely mixed. In 2010 while he was governor of Indiana, he attempted to prevent the radical history book “A People’s History of the US” by Howard Zinn from being used in any K-12 program in the state. And when he was informed that the book was being used in a social movements course for teachers at Indiana University, Daniels started “a proposed statewide review of university courses designed to “disqualify propaganda” from Indiana’s curriculum.”
    How does Daniels square his censorship of an award-winning book with his “commitment to free speech”? At Purdue, he said that what he did as governor was irrelevant because it only concerned K-12 education and not colleges. Further, he claimed that he was in favor of free speech, but that Zinn’s book contained so many errors that he was bound to censor it because of his commitment to the truth.
    You can find stories on Daniels and his censorship here:
    http://www.commondreams.org/news/2013/08/14/censorship-backfire-surge-interest-zinns-peoples-history
    http://www.thenation.com/article/175592/whos-afraid-radical-history
    If you read these stories and Daniels’ comments about Howard Zinn, ask yourself: if Zinn were still alive and a faculty member at Purdue invited Zinn to give a talk, would Daniels not have prevented Zinn from speaking?

    1. I know nothing about this book, but there is a fundamental difference between curriculum and speech.

      I appreciate the irony of a book censor supporting free speech, but these really are different issues.

      There is and probably always will be a difference in how people are treated prior to age 16 or 18. Hence things like drinking age and age of consent.

      My other thought on this is I have a general loathing of politicians in general, but I will support good ideas, however they arrive.

    2. +1 Petruska, and just to add there is also a difference between being a GOP politician and being a regular person. The latter person is free to be him/herself; the former takes the party’s stance lest he be “primaried” by an ultra-conservative when s/he next stands for election. Having said that, it seems conservatives remain in favor of individual free speech, probably since conservative speech is most likely to be on the receiving end of bans and dis-invitations these days. Still, I applaud Mr. Daniels for demonstrating that GOP politics is the disingenuous clown show I and others suspect that it is. In another age, he may well have stood up for reason as governor as well; not in this one!

      1. My guess is that Daniels would not have prevented Zinn from speaking. He just didn’t think his book was suitable for inclusion in the K-12 educational program. These are two quite different things. Students were obviously free to read the book if they so wished – I mean, he could hardly prevent them from doing so.

    3. Brave words from Mitch Daniels in defense of free speech at Purdue.

      But this isn’t from Mitch Daniels, is it? It’s from the “Committee on Freedom of Expression”, appointed by Robert J. Zimmer and Eric D. Isaacs.

      1. “We looked at it, our trustees looked at it. We said, you know, this says exactly what needs to be said. We’re going to protect all kinds of speech, including the kind we think is ridiculous and completely wrong, and we’re going to insist everybody else respect — at least on our campus — people’s right to be heard,” Daniels said.

        /@

  2. Among many virtues this is nicely nuanced, in accordance with American jurisprudence.

    The courts have been pretty clear that overt harassment, libel, property damage, etc. are not protected free speech. And so here.

    But when I was a student at Kent State in the 1990s, at least one of my fellow lefties protested that school funds were allocated to let Dinesh D’Souza even speak at all on campus. That’s just a betrayal of liberal values.

    Claiming that certain speech creates a “hostile environment” is a slippery slope.

    What is FIRE up to these days?

  3. Well, as an Alum, I am happy to see Chicago finally get their act together. (I missed this on FIRE’s site in January.) I recall some dining hall conversations that were rather boisterous and pointed, and while my manners are better these days, it makes me sad to think that students these days feel constrained in sharing their ideas, however ill-formed. As Socrates and Plato demonstrate, it is only through argument that we can really be sure of the quality of our ideas.

    1. As Socrates and Plato demonstrate, it is only through argument that we can really be sure of the quality of our ideas.

      And exactly the motivation, or part of the motivation, of those who would silence provocative speech. “My god, minds might be changed or, gasp, my mind might be changed!

  4. “the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

    Wow. Fantastic. Thanks, Jerry.

  5. In short, the point to be made to would-be whiners is this:

    “It’s a _college_, NOT a day-care!”

    BTW, can someone explain to me those weird posts that just say “sub” in them? I’ve been curious. Thanks.

    1. If you want to get an email for every single comment on a post you must check the “Notify me of new comments” box; if you have no comment or neglected to check the box on one, you make a comment with the word “sub” (which is a convention – you can put anything in your comment) and check the box.

      1. Aha! Thanks. I thought someone was putting in an artificial comment to close out an html pairing, or some-such.

  6. The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas

    That concept of “competing ideas” is going to rile some people. After all, aren’t all ideas right, particularly since the herminutics of quantum gravity were established? The idea that some ideas might be “right” and others might be “wrong” implies that there is an external objective reality, rather than a subjective internal state of word salad.
    But it’s definitely going to get up the noses of the people who think that Chicago is a day-care centre not a college.

      1. Your wave function appears to have three solutions : right, wrong and …. what?

          1. Odd, didn’t see your correction first time around. But it makes more sense without that extra column (or ‘pipe’, or whatever you call that symbol).

  7. I think this tail is even more stingy:

    “As Robert M. Hutchins observed, without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university. The University of Chicago’s long- standing commitment to this principle lies at the very core of our University’s greatness. That is our inheritance, and it is our promise to the future.”

    Ouch! Get with it, other universities!

  8. Off topic, but what does and the College refer to? I don’t think I’ve ever run across that before.

  9. “Do you hear that, Brandeis, Stanford, UCLA, The University of Maryland, the University of Michigan, and all the rest of you pusillanimous schools?”

    They will.
    The great thing about the internet is that all events within it result in expanding waves of commentary, so that significant events are eventually directed To Whom It May Concern.
    This is certainly not the end of the age of Special Snowflakes and the creation of Safe Spaces for our young adults, but it may be the beginning of the end.

  10. This is good news and excellent commentary.
    I would like to say about this: “the clash of ideas—a prerequisite for the best ideas (and the truth) to rise to the top.” that there is no free marketplace of ideas because there is no such thing as a free market for anything. So, ideas have to earn their way and need justification by objective observers, and valuation by users who have needs and wants. Market competition is not a truth-finding process. As in evolution, the survivors survive, not because they’re optimum or anything.
    I hate lies, but we have no criteria for identifying lies in public discourse (other than science, which is disputed!) except maybe here and other objective, reason-based sites and publications.

  11. Say, does anybody know if this safe space stuff happen outside of the USA or Britain? Are there examples from, say, Scandinavia, Germany or Spain?

  12. For me, this is the “money” quote from the U of C statement:

    In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose . Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.

Leave a Reply