University of Chicago’s Kalven Report on free speech featured and defended in Wall Street Journal op-ed

March 17, 2022 • 9:30 am

All over the U.S., colleges and universities are falling over each other to make flaunt the most virtue by posting official statements about politics and ideology, now about Ukraine and, when that settles down, back to statements about ethnicity and politics.

All, that is, except the University of Chicago, which is unique in having a policy prohibiting the University or its departments from making “official” pronouncements on politics, ideology, or morality. (There are a few exceptions that involve issues affecting the workings of the University itself.) This policy is embodied in our 1967 Kalven Report, commissioned when the students were demanding that the University of Chicago take a position on the war in VIetnam (it didn’t).

The reason for the Kalven Report, which you can read here, is delineated in today’s op-ed by Todd Henderson in the Wall Street Journal. In short, it’s the policy is supposed to facilitate our vaunted freedom of speech policy by avoiding the production of “officially approved University speech”, which would suppress the speech of those who disagreed.

But the Kalven policy is endangered, for our students and liberal faculty see other colleges doing things like damning Kyle Rittenhouse or calling for support of Black Lives Matter; such statements should not be fiats but debatable propositions. I’ve written about this many times before (see posts here) and have noted that, despite ex-President Zimmer’s decree that individual departments must also abide by Kalven, they’re violating it right and left (see here and here for example. There are many similar statements at the U of C.

Statement like the one from our Department of English above are palpable violations of the University policy that departments cannot take political stands. Yet they haven’t been removed, despite a lot of us fighting to get them taken down—even when we agree with them!. This frustration has led many of us to think of other ways to impress on our new administration, headed by President Alivisatos, the importance of not just espousing Kalven, but enforcing Kalven. A policy that is uneforced is a useless and toothless policy.

I believe that was the impetus that prompted my colleague Todd Henderson from our Law School to write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal about Kalven. It’s very well written and makes his (and our) point very well. And if you’ll dismiss it because its in the WSJ opinion section, well, then you’re dismissing freedom of speech because of where its defense is published, and that’s dumb.

Click on the screenshot below; and if you can’t access the piece, I’ll put the op-ed below the fold.

More than seventy colleges have already adopted a version of the University of Chicago’s Principles of Free Speech (the “Chicago Principles”), but none have adopted the other pillar of our free-speech policy, the Kalven Report.  They should do so, for if they don’t, University administrations will become arbiters of what speech is “correct”, and those who dissent will have their speech chilled. If you think that instituting “official speech” won’t chill its opponents, think of how an untenured professor or graduate student might think twice before taking issue with “official” speech of their department or university.

Click “read more” to see the editorial:

Henderson’s text:

Lawrence Bacow, president of Harvard, issued a statement Feb. 28 condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine on behalf of the university. It decried the “deplorable actions of Vladmir Putin ” and asserted that Harvard has an obligation to speak out because “institutions devoted to the perpetuation of democratic ideas and to the articulation of human rights have a responsibility to condemn such wanton aggression.”

It seems hard to disagree, but I do. I’m no fan of Mr. Putin, and I certainly don’t want Russia to swallow Ukraine. I disagree because it is antithetical to the mission of a university to take a position on the war—even if everyone on campus opposes it.

To understand why, go back to 1966, when the U.S. government revised its rules about the military draft. College students had been generally exempt. But in need of more bodies, the government asked universities for the names of students in the bottom half of the class to make them eligible for conscription. At the University of Chicago, students rebelled. In May 1966, almost 500 students shut down the administrative building for several days to protest the policy. This raised the question of what position, if any, the university should take on the war in Vietnam.

To answer this question, President George Beadle appointed a committee led by law professor Harry Kalven Jr. The committee’s work, the Kalven report, is a founding document of the University of Chicago’s commitment to open inquiry. The bottom line is simple: Neither the university nor any of its parts may take any positions on matters of public concern, unless they threaten the university itself. According to the Kalven report, “the university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.”

Not taking official positions is essential to a university’s mission as a place where ideas and theories are developed and tested. To succeed, the report argues, “a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.” Perhaps someone on campus has a dissenting view about the attempted takeover of Ukraine, and official positions might chill that view. That view may be wrong, but it should be proved so, not silenced.

University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer has argued for years that, by pushing the boundaries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization too far, America would be partly to blame for a Russian invasion. There is a student petition on campus to silence him, calling him a defender or an apologist for Mr. Putin’s war. But whether Mr. Mearsheimer is right or wrong, the Kalven report ensures that his university won’t silence him. His point of view will be tested in the marketplace of ideas, not censored by administrators.

Especially in an age of ideological fads and Twitter mobs, we need boundaries that protect the pursuit of truth. Bad ideas will sometimes have a home on campus. But the risks to truth from kowtowing to popular opinion are simply too great.

In his statement condemning the Russian invasion, Harvard’s president noted that the Ukrainian flag would fly over Harvard Yard and that “Harvard University stands with the people of Ukraine.” In 1943, during another war, the Supreme Court considered a West Virginia statute that required public-school students to salute the American flag during the Pledge of Allegiance. In the decision striking down the law, Justice Robert Jackson wrote that “if there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

The Kalven report applies this same idea. Scholars and students should be free to think and say what they believe rather than have to follow the orthodoxy of university presidents. If faculty and students want to stand with Ukraine, that is their right. Telling them that they must do so is not only contrary to the mission of universities, it is un-American.

Mr. Henderson is a law professor at the University of Chicago.

15 thoughts on “University of Chicago’s Kalven Report on free speech featured and defended in Wall Street Journal op-ed

  1. ” … matters of public concern, unless they threaten the university itself.”

    I see that “unless” part being bent to ideological will through deliberate misunderstanding – e.g. everything potentially threatening the university, therefore [insert political slogan here].

    ‘Course, it would take rationality to see that mistake.

    Excellent, concise piece of writing by Mr. Henderson. I didn’t realize the Vietnam war played a significant role in the Kalven report.

    1. Yes, in some places it’s being asserted that the University’s mission is threatened unless it adopts the Kendian form of anti-racism. You can always say stuff like that, but, up to now, the University hasn’t bought it. If it does, we’re doomed.

  2. Great letter. It still baffles me that places like Harvard feel the need to do this. I can see how a school struggling to attract enough students might feel like they have to appeal to student sentiment, but Harvard?

    1. Visibility – popular gravitation – movies feature it- it has an audience and know it – or maybe something substantial that is not apparent, like its own version of the Kalven report. We may never know.

  3. Re: the 1967 Kalven Report. I understand (and agree with) why the U of C would decline to take an official position on the war in Vietnam. But what about snitching off the male students in the bottom half of their class to the Selective Service? Arguably, it seems to me, this would fall into one of the narrow exceptions “that involve issues affecting the workings of the University itself.”

    1. One could comment on the draft as it affected university students without commenting on wider issues about the Vietnam war.

      Similarly, at the moment a university could make supportive statements regarding students affected by the Ukraine/Russia war without commenting on the war itself. I realise that a university not doing so would be unpopular, though I think that not doing so is still best (though personally I fully hope that Ukraine wins and pushes the Russian Army out).

      Indeed — this is a general remark, not a reply to Ken — it is precisely because people can and do make such statements that a university should not.

      It’s akin to the First Amendment denying the state any role in religion, it’s better left to the people.

      1. It’s one thing to “comment on the draft as it affected university students[.]” It’s another for the university to give up the names of certain of its students so they could be yanked out of school and drafted into the military (which was merely a proposal that never actually took effect).

        I was simply wondering whether the latter wouldn’t qualify for the narrow exception regarding “the workings of the university itself,” such that the university could take a stand on it without running afoul of the principles set out in the Kalven Report.

  4. I think it is worth noting the distinction between things that are debatable – examples above – and the general notion of “debate” – such as a “debate about evolution versus creationism or religion”. The readers here know these “debates”. Of course, by scare quotes, I mean there is no debate about why evolution is true.

    Speakers such as Sam Harris and Lawrence Krauss have made a point that they are no longer interested in such “debates” because there is _no_ debate about religion, evolution, or cosmic inflation, etc.

    Yet there seems to remain a common notion that everything is “up for debate”. In fact, it appears this is a good exercise for high school debate club – pick a side and defend it. But it took me a long time to accept that there are limits to that approach.

    I think this line between debatable and not debatable is where a lot of confusion lies. I do not know a solution.

    1. Have to disagree. Granted:

      There is no debate in my mind about evolution. I haven’t read Why Evolution is True. I don’t need to, although I remain fascinated by evidence that accumulates all the time supporting evolution, addressing testable, falsifiable hypotheses. I probably would enjoy the book and learn lots I don’t know now. I am reading Faith vs Fact, though, even though I don’t really need to read it either because I haven’t been a believer since age 13 or so. I don’t read articles claiming to debunk evolution in favour of creationism because I know they will be a waste of time. So my mind is closed about both evolution and religious belief. I have to decide what beliefs I need to examine, and evolution is not one of them.


      to say evolution is no longer debatable by anyone doesn’t follow. They would just be debates that I would not be interested in. If the other side was the creationist argument it would not be a useful debate because religious beliefs are not debatable by their nature. I would think few believers would have their faith shaken by the arguments of the evolution side….yet mine (such as it was) was at 13 by that very thing.
      It’s hard to imagine what a debate about evolution would even look like. Creationist objections phrased as “things evolution can’t explain” and then rebutted by evidence about how evolution actually does explain them? (A recent example about the blood coagulation system was “What good is half a clot?” The answer was, “A lot better than no clot.”) Still, to say that it can’t be debated, or oughtn’t to be debated is over-reach.
      “Resolved that evolution should be taught in schools to the exclusion of alternative Christian and Indigenous creationist explanations,” seems to me to be a no-brainer. But there are brain-less people elected to school boards who need to be convinced somehow, by appeal to higher authority (legislatures, courts) if necessary. That requires debate. You can’t just say, “There is no debate,” and walk away. Because then there’ll be no evolution taught in that school district.

      1. “There is no debate *in my mind* about evolution.”

        Evolution is a process out in Nature in the same way DNA is a polymeric material code for life. It isn’t inside anyone’s mind. Evolution is a truth claim originated by Wallace and Darwin, who did the work to show it has to be true, and for 163 years since has been found to be true by more work – and the universe doesn’t care what we think about it (N. D. Tyson).

        Thoughts, expressions, ideas, and views on matters of civil importance – e.g. war – vary from person to person, and must be subject to collective free expression in order to know precisely what they are for evaluation – i.e. debate – and are thus clearly and necessarily debatable.

        i.e. while Monty Python’s Argument Clinic _can_ be applied to everything as “debatable” positions as in a high school debate club spectacle, that does not mean it will be productive as a truth-seeking project.

        But that does not mean “nobody is allowed” to “debate” evolution. They of course should feel free to be ignored – not obstructed by the Yale students as if it was not debatable as in this post :

        BTW I know I’m enjoying going on at length so I’ll try to cool it. Thanks.

        1. Personally, I don’t think even famous people like Krauss and Harris should forego such debates/ As a tween and young teen, endlessly watching the debates between the great Christopher Hitchens and various creationists, promoters of religion, and the like help cement in me not just what I felt I “knew.” How can people “know” such things at such a young age, without having been exposed to the evidence? They can’t. They need evidence to tell them whether they’re right or possibly even wrong, and, if they are right, they need to learn why they’re right and how to argue their positions. People who are on the other side of the fence need to see such debates as well. Many people have been turned away from religion, creationinism, and many other false ideas, especially through Hitchens’s debates.

          Hitchens’s debates on Youtube were an invaluable resource for me (and for so many others) during my formative years, both confirming my thoughts and teaching me how to argue in favor of them.

          1. Absolutely

            Perhaps their objection is a technical one – as to format. i.e.

            “hey Sam, you be the science guy and our Sophisticated Theologian will debate you about how god is real in our program”

            SH : “been there done that – pass.”

            1. Oh yes, I completely understand why they wouldn’t wish to continue doing it. I just think that they should perhaps reconsider, as such debates can have an enormous impact. Since we live in the “age of information,” they really are important. I understand why they might not be important to people like Harris personally, and may even feel like a hassle or waste of time, but I think they’re perhaps even more effective and spreading the Good Word (tee-hee) than their podcasts, articles, etc.

              I certainly don’t blame such people for not wanting to continue with such endeavors, but I hope they will at some point. Especially on college campuses!

        2. Oh and, of course, his debates about free speech helped me form my opinions on that issue at a young age and learn how to debate in its favor effectively. Such debates help people learn why the right to have such debates is even important in the first place/

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