Oy gewalt! How can this be? Walking over to the student union for lunch, I picked up a copy of The Chicago Maroon, the student-run newspaper. At the top was this headline: “Student Government tables free speech resolution.”
I am appalled. I am shaking and crying right now. I can’t even. . . .
How could they do that? Read on.
As you may know, the University of Chicago has one of the nation’s strongest and best free speech codes, the result of a committee convened in 2014 and chaired by law professor and constitutional lawyer Geoffrey Stone. You can read it here; it’s pretty uncompromising in support of free expression. It’s been a model for similar speech policies at other enlightened universities.
But last year at the University of Chicago there were at least two incidents in which speakers were shouted down and could not give their talks. Yesterday, a resolution was introduced in the student General Assembly to try to prevent further obstruction and to affirm the University’s free-speech code:
The resolution was proposed by second-year Matthew Foldi. This resolution calls on the University administration to condemn any student who “obstructs or disrupts” free speech, including making threats to speakers on campus, and to enforce such condemnation. It cited the University’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression and alluded to two campus events disrupted by student protesters earlier this year.
In his presentation to the General Assembly, Foldi explained that he wrote the resolution in response to February events with Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez and Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist and critic of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement. Both events ended early after student protesters drowned out the speakers.
Foldi added that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that advocates for free speech on college campuses, awarded the University its highest rating for protection of free speech earlier this year.
No-brainer vote, right? Wrong. The resolution was rejected in a 10-8 vote, with 8 cowards abstaining. How can this be? How can you not vote against obstructing invited speakers? Well, two opponents were willing to give their cockamamie reasons:
Class of 2018 Representative Cosmo Albrecht disagreed. “I don’t think we should use this idea of elected officials being…banned from speaking as evidence that free speech is under attack,” he said. “If you’re an elected official you should be willing to face the consequences of your actions…. I think these protests are a necessary part of a democracy.”
Yes, to Mr. Albrecht, so apparently the “consequences of your actions” on this campus include not being allowed to speak. That’s reprehensible. Why not let them speak and then ask questions, or give a counter speech? Do you believe in silencing your opponents?
From the president of the Student Government:
SG President Tyler Kissinger explained that while he does not usually speak on these issues, he urged General Assembly members to vote against the resolution. “As a public official it is my obligation not to run out of the room. I was at the Anita Alvarez event, an event with someone whose office has consistently refused to meet with black and Latino communities that her office has over-policed and I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “I think it is well within the rights of people to protest events particularly for public officials…and I urge a no vote.” [“No” rejects the affirmation of free speech.]
Mr. Kissinger apparently doesn’t understand that “protest” can encompass a variety of tactics that do not include shouting down the speaker. You can ask questions, picket outside the talk, write articles, give opposing talks, and so on. “Silencing” is not an option, at least not for those who think that viewpoints should at least be heard—especially if the speakers, as in this case, were invited to campus.
I’m disgusted at this behavior by our students. Granted, not all of their representatives voted against the free-speech affirmation, but the vote should have been 26 in favor and none opposed.
Students, if you’re reading this: the majority of your representatives don’t understand the basic principles of democracy and freedom. Vote them out of office. I am ashamed at their tacit approval of silencing tactics to bully people off the stage. And understand that, in the long run, shouting down speakers not only fails to work, but makes you look really bad—like the bullies you are.
I’m proud of my University, yet ashamed of its students.