Writer excoriates the University of Chicago English Department for its opposition to free speech

March 6, 2020 • 12:30 pm

 Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think.

Hannah Holborn Gray, former president, The University of Chicago


Ben Schwarz is a well known editor and writer who was national editor of The Atlantic for 13 years after 2000, and won plaudits for his work, described in this bit from Wikipedia:

Schwarz was the literary and the national editor of The Atlantic from 2000 to 2013. In addition to writing, assigning, and editing prominent feature articles for the magazine, Schwarz ran, and wrote a regular column for, the Atlantic’s cultural and literary department, which under his editorship expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. The Los Angeles Times wrote that Schwarz had “reshaped the venerable magazine’s book section into the shrewdest, best-written and most surprising cultural report currently on offer between slick covers.” The writers he recruited to the Books section included Perry Anderson, Caitlin Flanagan, Sandra Tsing Loh, Christopher Hitchens, Cristina Nehring, Joseph O’Neill, Terry Castle, Clive James, and B. R. Myers.

Schwarz describes himself as politically heterodox, and is currently working on a biography of Winston Churchill.  I became acquainted with him when he wrote me with concerns about his son, who’s due to attend the University of Chicago this fall, and was planning on majoring in English. (His son describes himself as being on the political Left.) That is, until Schwarz fils saw the statement below on the U of C’s Department of English Language and Literature website (henceforth the “English Department”).

Click to access the site:

Now this is an “open letter” giving the opinion of 40 members of the department (a big majority of the faculty of 61), but, emblazoned on the departmental website, it has the cachet of being a kind of official statement. And it’s an opinion directly at odds with the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, which allow no exceptions to free speech except for the normal legal ones as well as speech that may disrupt the workings of the university:

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.

There is no—repeat, no—exception for the so-called “hate speech” here, or for speech that involves bullying, racially charged attacks, nor for speech that “demeans, intimidates, or harms others.” We’ve discussed this many times, and I’ve given lots of examples (as does Schwarz in the article below) of how speech that articulates useful and discussable ideas can at the same time be claimed to “harm, demean, or intimidate others.”

Ben wrote me about his concerns. I read the statement and agreed with him that the English Department statement is directly at odds with the University’s own position.  While one could say that the English Department statement is just an expression of personal opinion and not official policy—which is true—it should not be a permanent fixture on a department website, because it’s intimidating and gives the impression that the English Department has values inimical to those of the University as a whole. In fact, when Ben’s son read that statement, he decided that while he’ll still come here next fall, he’s not going to major in English Language and Literature. So they’ve lost a student. The 40 woke professors should have just written a letter to the  student newspaper rather than having their views given permanence on their departmental website.

But then Schwarz père decided he’d confect a critical analysis of the statement above, taking it apart and showing how it contradicts the principles of our University. And so he wrote the article below in Spiked, which I recommend you read in its entirety. It’s not pleasant for me to see the University of Chicago, of which I’m proud, criticized in this way, but I have to say that it’s necessary. As our school becomes more woke, it’s essential that U of Cers like me stand up for the Chicago Principles to keep other departments from loosening the reins on free speech. (The administration still stands by the principles, thank Ceiling Cat.)

I’ll give a few quotes from Schwarz, but the four-page article (as I printed it out in 9-point type) needs a full reading. As one would expect from Schwarz, it’s hard-hitting and very well written. Some excerpts (indented):

Although the US News and World Report rankings (America’s most famous academic league table) place the University of Chicago’s English department as the best in the US, the department’s arguments and assertions evince sloppy writing and thinking. Who is to decide what constitutes ‘bullying’ or ‘racially charged attacks’? Who determines if and how speech ‘demeans, intimidates, or harms others’? Who deems what speech ‘has no place in academic life’? Would any individual who feels demeaned or harmed by speech have the power to exclude that speech from ‘academic life’? Is the English department proposing itself as the star chamber? The open letter states that ‘bullying’ and ‘racially charged attacks’ are just some of the ‘forms’ of ‘disagreement’ that are illegitimate and therefore deserving of expulsion from the academy (‘when disagreement takes such forms as…’, emphasis added). Who will decide what other ‘forms’ of ‘disagreement’ are considered worthy of banishment from campus? The department states that ‘the invocation of the right of free speech’ is illegitimate when ‘speech is no longer primarily a matter of the expression of ideas, viewpoints, or opinions’ and that only speech that ‘makes claims and articulates ideas’ is legitimate. Who is to determine what speech pursues these aims and falls under these categories? If the open letter’s signatories ‘condemn’ and ‘repudiate’ certain on-campus expression or activities, what form will that condemnation and repudiation take? The Chicago Principles ‘guarantee all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude’ of expression, but the English department seeks the opposite goal – not free speech, but licensed speech.

Moreover, the position articulated in the department’s proclamation is contradictory and therefore ambiguous. Speech that any person or group might construe, or misconstrue, as ‘bullying’, ‘racially charged’, ‘glorif[ying] violence’, ‘demean[ing]’, or ‘harm[ful]’ – forms of expression that the English department states should be expunged from campus – could simultaneously be ‘a matter of the expression of ideas, viewpoints, or opinions’ and constitute ‘speech that makes claims and articulates ideas’ — that is, forms of speech that the department deems permissible. Thus the position advocated in the proclamation, and any policies that might derive from that position, are irredeemably flawed. Furthermore, if the proclamation’s precepts are followed, any persons who feel that they have been ‘harm[ed]’ or ‘demeane[d]’ or that the content or manner of debate is ‘bullying’, ‘racially charged’, or ‘glori[fies]…violence’ can, in fact, ought to, shut down the offending debate or discussion. The department’s position would thus squelch free inquiry and potentially require any member of the university to be ‘condemn[ed]’ and ‘repudiate[d]’ (by the English department?) for articulating an argument because some unspecified party judges that argument to be offensive.

And the critical clash between the Chicago Principles and the English Department’s virtue-flaunting:

The English department asserts that ‘there is a crucial difference between speech that makes claims and articulates ideas, and speech that demeans, intimidates, or harms others’. But inevitably and unavoidably, expression ‘that makes claims and articulates ideas’ will be found by some – and in quite a few cases by nearly everyone – to be demeaning, hurtful and even intimidating. The Chicago Principles emphatically recognise this very point: ‘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… [C]oncerns 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 Chicago Principles go on to declare unambiguously 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’. In this way, too, the department holds a position incompatible with the principles of the university that houses and governs it.

. . . The English department affirms that all speech that can be interpreted as the ‘glorification of violence against those with whom one differs’, or as ‘hatred expressed in speech’, should be condemned and excluded from academic life. This blanket condemnation and exclusion would necessarily embrace within its ambit many important political statements and arguments. Will those who would approvingly cite the dictum ‘from the river to the sea Palestine will be free’ (a statement many believe advocates a genocidal programme against Israel’s Jews) be expelled from academic life? What about those who express Mao’s idea that ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’? And what about those who invoke Thomas Jefferson’s idea that ‘the tree of liberty must be refreshed… with the blood of patriots and tyrants’?

Schwarz provides several other famous quotes that presumably would be criticized or deemed “hate speech” by the English Department, and he also discusses whether it’s exculpatory to have a simple “opinion” affixed to the website of the English Department (he and I say “NO!”). He also discusses the petition of many faculty and students calling to have Steve Bannon, invited to speak here in the fall of 2018, disinvited. (I wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune defending Bannon’s right to speak.)

Yes, the administration is still holding the line on free speech here, and for that I’m grateful. But many of the Woke are edging their toes closer to that line, and there are palpable signs that my University is weakening on its free-speech commitment in several areas. (I think we, of all Universities, need to educate incoming students about free speech.) I’ve already called the English Department statement to the University administration’s attention (as has Schwarz), yet it remains on the website. So I say to the English Department, its faculty, and all its students, “English Department: Tear down that statement!”  If you must, send it to the Chicago Maroon, but don’t leave it as a permanent part of the Department website. It creates a chilling climate for students (in English, of all places!), and has already frozen out Ben’s son from that department.

And it’s directly at odds with Hannah Gray’s statement at the top of this post.


11 thoughts on “Writer excoriates the University of Chicago English Department for its opposition to free speech

  1. The 40 woke professors should have just written a letter to the student newspaper rather than having their views given permanence on their departmental website.

    I would argue they shouldn’t even need to do that.

    If they want to add a brief statement to the syllabus handed out in class saying they won’t tolerate bullying, that’s fine, because it’s useful for the students to know and understand classroom rules. But really, the statement above isn’t that. It’s all about how they view their jobs as educators, and frankly, students don’t take their classes because they want to study the Prof’s opinion on their role and job as educators. They’re there for the content. Time spent telling the students how you think a good Shakespeare professor behaves in and out of class is time spent not actually teaching Shakespeare.

    So, Profs, here’s as suggestion. Leave your reaffirmation statements at home. By all means clearly define your de minimis in-class behavioral expectations. But beyond that, let’s let the discussion of verboten speech happen naturally, i.e. only if the students get in an argument that demands your adult input to maintain order and get the class back on track.

  2. Another step for the humanities on the path to utter irrelevancy. We’re witnessing a once proud and valuable academic discipline slouching its way to uselessness. I wonder if anything can be done.

  3. “Moreover, the position articulated in the department’s proclamation is contradictory and therefore ambiguous. Speech that any person or group might construe, or misconstrue, as ‘bullying’, ‘racially charged’, ‘glorif[ying] violence’, ‘demean[ing]’, or ‘harm[ful]’ – forms of expression that the English department states should be expunged from campus – could simultaneously be ‘a matter of the expression of ideas, viewpoints, or opinions’ and constitute ‘speech that makes claims and articulates ideas’ — that is, forms of speech that the department deems permissible. Thus the position advocated in the proclamation, and any policies that might derive from that position, are irredeemably flawed.”

    This is considered a feature, not a bug, by the people who wrote this statement. Just as the Emory College newspaper wrote that all speech that doesn’t cause bodily harm should be allowed in order to protect the students who were performing the sit-in at Syracuse, the professors who proffered this open letter do not intend to apply their supposed principles equally to all students. Their goal is to suppress speech and ideas that they and their fellow travelers believe to be harmful, not to suppress speech and ideas that anyone believes to be harmful. I’m quite certain that these professors would not apply their supposed principles to speech offending, say, a Trump supporter, or an anti-abortion activist.

  4. In just the past week, we in the UK have experienced several outbreaks of ‘inclusiveness and mutual respect’ and ‘and willingness to listen to other viewpoints’. Here a couple.

    Tiania was all over one, when two local libraries were forced to take down flags they were flying in support of International Women’s Day.

    What did the flags say? ‘Woman, noun, adult female’, denounced by a LGBTQ+ activist as both ‘hostile’ and ‘transphobic’.


    When the flags were duly taken down, Titania followed up with:

    “I’ve been informed that all six of your local libraries contain hate books known as the “dictionary” in which it is claimed that a “woman” is an “adult human female”.

    If you want to stop endorsing transphobic fascism, please destroy these books NOW.”

    Meanwhile, over at The Guardian, various women’s groups (also in preparation for IWD) were complaining to Oxford Dictionaries for recording that ‘bitch’ is a synonym for ‘woman’. Which indeed it does, although noting ‘offensive’. And it jillustrates Titania’s (and the LGBTQ+ complainant’s) great concern.’WOMAN: adult human female’.

    Fortunately, lexographers have a defence: we just report usage. ‘Just the facts, ma’am’, as Joe Friday didn’t quite say.

    [Apparently, in the USA ‘ma’am’ is a dated (if polite) form of address to a woman.

    Here in the UK we continue to use it guiltily to address female royalty, and senior female officers in the police or armed forces.]

    1. I’m not sure the recent generations of humans (hupersons?) know what a dictionary actually IS, how to use one, or where one might be found. If it’s not on tw@tter, farcebook, instasham, or tik-tak, they’re pretty damn clueless. And as for the humanities students, well, they wouldn’t be caught dead using a dictionary, it has the word “dick” in it and is therefore verboten, seeing as it is clearly anti-female. Perhaps they can write their own vagtionary.

    2. It isn’t only flags being taken down is it?
      UK police are interviewing and charging people with thought crime as we speak.

  5. It would be interesting to know if UC’s speech policy is turning off any prospective students, so that UC’s student body eventually self-selected to become less woke, more pro-free thought and speech. As an alumnus, I sure hope so. I also hope there’ll be some response to this English department website from the UC president’s office.

    1. I believe it refers to when the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, a scholarly organization that studies medieval European history, was pressured to change its name by Mary Rambaran-Olm and others because some so-called “white supremacists” (who are not actually supremacists by any reasonable definition of the word as far as I can see) use the word “Anglo-Saxon” as a loose synonym for “white person” and/or talk about having a proud Anglo-Saxon heritage.

      1. It was a reaction to a dustup between an eccentric prof in the History Department, Rachel Fulton Brown, a medievalist in the traditional mold of being a devout Christian believer, and a younger woke medievalist, who was also a same-sex person of color, who was then at Vassar. The rights and wrongs of this are a bit hard to follow, but it began with statements of the Vassar Prof to the effect that being a medievalist was inherently “problematic” unless you cleansed yourself of the taint of retrograde views by making clear that your perspective was a hostile one intent on deconstructing that history through the usual critical lenses – its connection to whiteness, colonialism, maleness, etc. She made an exception for minority profs – saying that they did not have to cleanse themselves because it was self-evident that they could not be suspected of these bad old views.

        This sent Fulton Brown around the bend (and she is around the bend just a bit at the best of times, being a fervent admirer of Milo Yannopoulis), who denounced the younger prof on her blog, which apparently brought some of Milo’s friends to send nasty messages to the Vassar prof. Fulton Brown in turn got nasty messages from the pomo crowd and was shunned and reviled for badthink. The nastiness was flying in all directions, though it seems to have been little more than social media wars and people saying nasty things about others at learned conferences. There were, however, calls for Fulton Brown to be terminated of her professorship at Chicago. She has tenure and that was not going to happen, which the History Department made clear. Nevertheless, it felt the need to briefly put a message on its own website mildly deploring her for the sin of doxxing the Vassar Prof. It was in this context and this moment that the English Department gratuitously intervened with its Open Letter, which it has kept prominently on display on its site now for over two years.

        Hard to see how this could have anything to do with the English Department or why this poorly written, platitudinous but ominous declaration should now be standing guard over their mission. Are white supremacist thugs and bullies really a threat to overrun this Department? A reading of the letter would make you think so. Or is it more the case that it is a virtue-signalling device telling any applicant to the department that “we here think all the right thoughts, and you had better think them too”?

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