Students at my own university vote down a resolution affirming free speech

May 11, 2016 • 12:15 pm

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.

51 thoughts on “Students at my own university vote down a resolution affirming free speech

  1. I can understand your (PCC) feeling ashamed of these students. But I’m not surprised at their action. It would probably be an unusual campus where similar vote tallies would have been counted.

  2. Clarification for readers worldwide: “to table a resolution” means the opposite in US English from what it means in rest-of-the-world English. 🙂

      1. I remember my confusion about “tabling” when I first moved to Canada from the U.S. It would make much more sense if we Yanks “shelved” motions when we put them aside.

  3. Bad show Chicago. I can’t help believe that among those who want to run student bodies are a fair number of self advertising control freaks and busy bodies. Here in the UK they have always been from the left. Denied the pulpit and other traditional avenues of repression they find another outlet.

    1. I don’t think it is a bad show. And I do not think it really in any way reflects on the school. You are correct in your characterization of those who get involved in student government in general. At UofC, about a quarter of the students voted. In my time at UofC, I never voted in an SG election. I did not want to encourage those who thought it was a good idea – or looked good on their resume. The actions they take are meaningless and get entirely too much attention.

      These days, I might want to support the Moose Party which finished third in the most recent elections. Here is a 2013 article about them:

    1. “…Nobody seems to like anyone expressing an opinion anymore. F**king tragic…”

      I respectfully disagree. People *love* other people expressing opinions – so long as the only opinions expressed echo their own.

      This is the primary problem with such nonsense as “safe space”: everyone has to agree or you’re in violation.

  4. Foldi should organize a group of like minded individuals to shout down the student council members who voted No on that resolution whenever they try to say anything to point out how absurd their position on this issue is.

  5. Only about 25% of students bother to vote in these elections. Chicago Maroon story on the most recent elections:

    And those who run are generally the types who want to “DO SOMETHING!” Or those who think it is a joke – e.g. the Moose Party.

    As usual, a small group takes control of the process, motivates its friends, wins the election and does nothing of consequence other than issue stupid proclamations. I would not blame the entire student body for anything other than apathy.

    1. As a practical demonstration – when I was at Engineering School at Auckland University, come the Students Association Annual General Meeting, all 300 engineers (stuck out at Ardmore hostel 20 miles out of town and with nothing better to do) would drive into town and pack the meeting. Our leaders would then make impassioned speeches and pass absurd motions such as ‘Free beer for everyone’ and ‘The Engineers are the best-dressed students on campus’, to the fury or amusement of the serious student politicians. (We would have considered it irresponsible to pass any motion that wasn’t absurd). After half an hour or so of this we would all decamp to the pub and let them get on with their business.

      I’m sure the student politicians would have loved to stop our nonsense but I certainly can’t think of any rule that would do so.


  6. The bottom line is that is legitimate to pour mockery and scorn on speech you find stupid or ugly, but not legitimate to actually silence such speech.
    Once a speaker has been invited to a campus, the invitation needs to be honored like a contract.

    1. Ditto. These students need to do a thought experiment each time they consider their vote: How would they feel if the resolution was used against them? They have a set of mainly laudable principles they are seeking to uphold, and this no vote was prompted by that. But what if they invited a BLM representative to speak for MLK day and that speaker was shouted down and forced to leave by a white supremacist group? They, for good reason, wouldn’t be so sanguine in that situation.

      The way to counter bad ideas is with better ones. Societies that embrace the values of the Enlightenment thrive for good reason – the ideas are better. But you can’t get rid of the bad ideas by banning them – you have to prove them wrong.

  7. What will these students do when they enter the work force? Shout down everyone they disagree with in a meeting? That’s a tactic of an unruly seven-year-old.

    1. Mr Rick Friday had a page 3 location for >21 years for his weekly – published cartoon (Iowa’s Farm News) presentation.

      When certain bullying – advertisers (of Big Farma, literally) complained to its wussy editor and its likewise publisher, Larry – Squared, over thus ? … … why, Mr Friday was fired the last week of April 2016 !

      Granted, this idn’t Charlie Hebdo but upon a slippery USA – unConstituational slope … … thereto.


      ps With said firing ? Mr Friday’s work i) not only will now be able to be viewed upon its own / solo website but also ii) received in the last two weeks far, far more exposure and publicity (including here and the NYTimes) than it ever had had throughout any Iowa county within the two decades’ afore this gagging !

  8. I’m thinking all this reminds me of 1968, and I suspect it presages the election of Trump.

  9. Do not know if it would help but since history, specifically, American history, is very poor in our elementary education these days, possibly Chicago should consider some additional courses in this area. The first amendment is probably misunderstood by more than 50% of the population and that is just the part on religion. Free speech seems to have left the building.

    1. In relation to her book, “The American Age of Unreason,” Susan Jacoby has reflected on stopping at an NYC bar for an early afternoon restorative in the aftermath of 9/11/01. She overheard two Wall St. junior power suit types discussing the day’s events, and then she heard them discussing Pearl Harbor. One asked the other what was the cause of Pearl Harbor. The other replied to the effect that Vietnam attacked Pearl Harbor. And there’s a reasonable chance that these were elite university graduates.

      Whatever school teachers get wrong, I doubt that they tell students Vietnam attacked Pearl Harbor. Students learn and retain something long enough to pass a test. Then, not a few forget it (though I personally don’t see how someone can be so willfully uncurious as to forget the basic historical facts of Pearl Harbor). Lawrence Krauss has been good to keep one informed of the dismal state of U.S. adult science literacy, where way too many believe that the sun revolves around the Earth. What teacher tells elementary students THAT?

      There is a long and wide streak of anti-intellectualism in this country, refulgent as it is with “Exceptionalism,” as well-documented by Jacoby, and also by Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” and Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

      The Hitch had an excellent peroration, not about teachers but about Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s inappropriate “shouting-fire-in-a-crowded theatre” analogy – and apparently insufficient understanding of the First Amendment – and he was the Chief Justice! – in a court case where the defendants were publishers of a Yiddish language pamphlet arguing against U.S. involvement in WW I, as if somehow that would incite the vast majority of non-Yiddish-speaking/-understanding/-reading human primates to wreak havoc and harm the public as a result.

      Should Holmes’s elementary school teachers bear the bulk of the responsibility for this?

      1. In the final years of the Cold War, I read about a poll assessing knowledge of ordinary Americans about WWII. It revealed that a surprising proportion of them thought that the USA and the Soviet Union had been enemies. There is apparently a tendency to extrapolate later conflicts into the past. As in the “1984”: Oceania was fighting Eurasia, Oceania had always been fighting Eurasia. I wonder what psychologists say about this.

      2. No doubt, the lack of knowledge of basic American history by people of all ages is very embarrassing and a feature indicator of our very poor educational system. I suspect the average high school level student in Europe knows more about American history than the same student in the U.S.

        I believe the shouting fire refers to the court case, Schenck vs the United States, no relative of mind. The “clear and present danger” idea that Holmes made. But it is always important to remember the origins of the bill of rights, where the 1st amendment comes from. These were laws that made it unconstitutional for govt. to suppress things such as speech. So think govt. not every common Joe out there running his mouth. The best way to get it is in this line:

        Think of free speech as a restriction on govt. not incitement to the people.

        1. “No doubt, the lack of knowledge of basic American history by people of all ages is very embarrassing and a feature indicator of our very poor educational system.”

          Any educational system (to speak clearly, group of teachers) on this planet stands or falls on its own (de-)merits, and should be held accountable. (I occasionally wonder if teaching quality could be improved with the self-regarding and self-absorbed pedagogical omniscience of the New York Times editorial board, Fortune 500 CEO’s, economists, Wall Street hedge fund managers, MBA/JD Romneyesque venture capitalists, think tank scions, politicos, religiosos, and professional sports demigods.) But where is the acknowledgement of and concern about the lack of student personal accountability/responsibility/perseverance/”grit”?

          In my judgement there is a significant predisposition in a sizeable, significant fraction of the population of this “indispensable” nation toward willful ignorance, regardless of the quality of the teaching force. As Bertrand Russell reflected, “Some people would rather die than think. And some do.” I figure it’s the same regarding learning.

          I aver that people generally learn/retain what they want to learn/retain. A poll during the last couple of years indicated that 96% of Amuricun adults recognized the moniker “Lady Gaga.” IIRC, per Susan Jacoby,
          approximately 25% of the age 19-24 U.S. demographic group (whose peers absorbed the vast majority of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan)could not locate Iraq on a map with the NAMES of countries printed on it. Or, to again mention Lawrence Krauss and the National Science Foundation, 25-50% of adult Amuricuns incorrectly answer the following question: “T or F: the Earth goes around the sun an takes a year to do it.”

          Does that 25-50% have no intellectual curiosity, the lack of which they have the courage to take responsibility for, rather than trying to fob it off on “My teacher should have made me . . . .”?

          It wouldn’t hurt certain self-absorbed Americans to put in a little time and effort channeling their inner Abe Lincoln autodidact.


          1. “I aver that people generally learn/retain what they want to learn/retain.”

            Absolutely. It is certainly true that we remember far more easily and painlessly, things that interest us. (Which is why a teacher who can make his subject interesting is a rare and precious thing).

            I used to deride ‘training’ courses at work because they were invariably run at a time convenient to the instructors, not when we actually needed them, so were doomed to be instantly forgotten. I’d say “write it all down on a piece of paper and then, when I’m actually trying to do it (if that ever happens), I’ll read it and remember”. Never worked though, the instructors much preferred their fancy timewasting Powerpoint presentations.


      3. O.W. Holmes had been the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court prior to his appointment to SCOTUS, but he served on the latter court as an associate, rather than as the chief, justice (albeit that he did serve as the Court’s acting chief justice for three weeks in February 1930, following the resignation of W.H. Taft, during the pendency of the appointment of Taft’s successor, C.E. Hughes).

        It’s also a mischaracterization to say that Holmes had an “insufficient understanding of the First Amendment.” It would probably be more accurate to say that Holmes’s views on free speech evolved — primarily under the influence of fellow justice Louis Brandeis, lower-court judge Learned Hand, and legal scholar Zachariah Chafee.

        The “clear and present danger” test Holmes formulated in Schenck was fine on its face; the problem was in its application to the facts of that case. Holmes did much to rectify this misapplication later the same term with his rousing dissent, joined by Brandeis, in Abrams v. U.S. The test Holmes announced in Schenck and correctly applied in Abrams is essentially the prevailing law of the land today, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio.

  10. “The consequences of your actions” evidently include any arbitrary vigilante reactions. I’ve had so many discussions lately with kids who see no contradiction in condemning the militancy of Trump supporters while endorsing militancy in support of their own preferences. They always fall back on some version of the same claim, “we’re justified because we’re right.” Somehow they can’t understand that every person or group can make the same claim.

  11. Practical solution? Invest in a Rock volume level P.A system and have it ready in cases of attempts to shout someone down.

    Drown them out.

  12. As events in the UK also show, student leaders are often not typical students, but are distinguished Indeed,mortivated) by their censorious self-righteousness and grandiosity.

    I don’t know the answer. Most students will be busy doing their own stuff, and may not even notice.

    And the idea of being responsible for the consequences of one’s actions is a repulsive one; it would make the martyrs (for a change, the word is appropriate) of Charlie Hebdo responsible for their own murders

    1. “mortivate” – what a wonderful verb – a cross between ‘mortify’ and ‘motivate’ (the first has the, alas, rare meaning of to ‘decay or become gangrenous’ (as of somebody’s brain, for example) and the, alas, obsolete meaning of ‘to destroy the vitality or vigour of something’.

  13. I guess they didn’t watch Obama’s speech at Howard college.

    A person who has had to deal with the issues at hand, speaking to some of those who may be most affected.

    He stated directly that free speech is vital and that silencing is wrong.

    Not enough I suppose.

    What will be enough?

  14. I know that your question was rhetorical, but how they could do this, despite the university’s official policy, is at least partly this:

    They are following the lead of the faculty members in their classrooms.

    Geoff Stone can say what he wants, humanities and div school faculty are saying something entirely different, they’re doing it all the time, and they probably think that the provost’s office is oppressing them.

  15. “If you’re an elected official you should be willing to face the consequences of your actions

    While there ARE some gray areas/blurring of categories between speech and actions, I really despise this sort of postmodern equivalency. If you want to reject a campus speaker because they are a rapist or murderer, fine. I’ll agree with the ‘consequences of your action’ argument. But in the vast majority of these attacks on free speech, what these leftist authoritarians are talking about is preventing people from speaking because of the ideas they’ve espoused in speech. Nothing more. Becaues the speaker wrote a book they didn’t like or something like that. That’s IMO despicable, and frankly it undermines the whole purpose of the speech clause of the first amendment, which was to ensure people had the practical ability (not just hypothetical right) to advocate for unpopular ideas. These guys have turned that on its head, and now say that a ‘consequence’ of the ‘act’ of unpopular speech should be that you don’t get to speak your unpopular idea any more. What could be more anti-liberal?

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