U of C President affirms freedom of speech on campus

January 20, 2023 • 9:30 am

Paul Alivisatos, the fairly new President of the University of Chicago, has written a piece for the Chicago Maroon, our student newspaper. It is, I think, a significant affirmation of our principles of free expression, which have been copied by nearly 100 other schools. And there is no nod to tempering freedom of speech in the interest of people’s “comfort”.  Click on the screenshot to read the whole statement, and I’ll put some bits, with commentary, below.

A few words first. The complete set of the U of C’s Foundational Principles can be seen here, and the important part, copied by other schools (the 2014 Freedom of Expression report), is here. Every university that gives lip service to freedom of speech should formally adopt a version of these principles. They should also adoopt a version of the Kalven Report, designed to buttress free expression. Kalven states that no part of the U of C, including departments or the administration, can make pronouncements on politics, ideology, or morality unless the issue threatens the mission of the university. We’ve abided by it for years with no obvious problems, but other schools have failed to adoopt it (save one: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) because they can’t accept that official pronouncements on ideology, politics, etc. could chill the speech of people who disagree. In fact, they want to be able to make political statements, even though they’re irrelevant to the university’s mission to teach, create knowledge, and promote critical thought. It’s time for other schools to follow us in adopting Kalven.

Now, on to President Alivisatos’s letter. His words are indented, and my comments are flush left except for one doubly-indented extract from an earlier post.

As we mark the start of a new year and the beginning of winter quarter, I write to share my reflections on the central culture and practice of free expression at the University of Chicago. Together, in the coming years, our community will need to continue devoting considerable effort to the broad and deep cultivation of this culture.

I am prompted by the fact that we live in an era of heightened political polarization, and free expression is in clear distress. This poses challenges to the practice of free inquiry throughout academia. During my time back at UChicago, I have seen firsthand the genuine depth of commitment to free expression within our community; yet it is essential to our mission that we constantly undertake the difficult work of interrogating the integrity of its practice on our campuses and renew our commitment to it time and time again. This unending exercise suffuses the spirit of how we drive rigorous inquiry on our campuses, and it touches every aspect of who we are.

Designed from the outset to foster the creation of new fields of knowledge and to offer transformational educational experiences, the University of Chicago was founded to advance the principles of academic freedom and free expression. Over generations, our community and our leadership have repeatedly worked to defend free expression and create the necessary structures to uphold it. This is an important legacy, and I urge you to examine this timeline of critical events and the key documents that underpin our culture and practice.

Looking ahead, there are four elements of our culture of free expression that are vital to uphold and cultivate: understanding, practicing, protecting, and advancing free expression.

The bit below describes a new addition to orientation; instead of indoctrination in certain ideologies, students are acquainted with free speech using an example. What would they do if someone came to campus to express an unpopular opinion? How many other schools engage in such an exercise? (I know of none.)

As part of that education, incoming College students last fall were invited to grapple with the big questions related to free expression and its practice through Professor Agnes Callard’s Aims of Education address and the subsequent open discussions led by Dean John Boyer and other faculty. At the Law School orientation, students engaged with a hypothetical challenge to free expression. The premise of the case study involved a student group that issued an invitation to a Russian state-sponsored advocate of the invasion of Ukraine, precipitating a series of cascading responses from people from within and without the University. While the specifics were hypothetical, these annual traditions held during orientation help to create a common language for facing real challenges when they arise. These are but two examples of many. They are models for ways in which, in the coming years, we can do more to set the stage for students throughout the University to be ready to participate in and get the most from the robust give and take of ideas during their time here.

Below the Alivisatos describes another event occurring a month after school starts (we’re on the quarter system, so classes begin in October).  It’s a discussion about the effects of social media on free expression:

In November, at the inaugural event of the new campus-wide Zell Event Series on free expression, the University hosted a live interrogation of how to practice free expression in today’s social and political environment. The featured speaker was Anthony Julius, a barrister, celebrated author, and professor of law at University College London, and he engaged UChicago Law School professor Genevieve Lakier in a spirited conversation. In discussion, they examined the vast implications of what is enabled by the unprecedented scale and velocity of communication across social media. Free expression in social media both informs—and sometimes disrupts—the quality of open discourse within universities, and it is a central challenge for both our and all institutions of higher education today. I invite all of you to participate directly in future events in this series. In the coming years, our culture of free expression will be enhanced by research, colloquia, seminars, and events that help elevate our understanding of the full range of topics related to free expression.

In the bit below, Alivisatos talks about the disruption of free expression by “the few”, and here, I think, he’s referring mostly to “progressive” Leftists trying to cancel speech they don’t like. As far as I know, he’s referring to this incident in which a journalist critical of the Iranian regime was “deplatformed” after reported threats, with her talk having to be moved to and broadcast virtually.  I myself was asked by anonymous people to help deplatform the speaker, and now I’m convinced that those who didn’t wish Negar Mortazavi to speak were pro-Iranian activists. (How somebody can be pro-Iran these days defies me.)

A healthy culture of free expression arises from the acts of many. Yet the actions of a few, when left unchecked, could disrupt that culture and thus significantly harm our community. For this reason, the protection of free expression is critical for it to thrive. I am committed to protecting free expression whenever there are efforts to quash it. This includes our clear commitment to hosting invited speakers, however controversial they may be. We saw this tested on one occasion just last fall, when we persisted in featuring an Institute of Politics-hosted event online despite an outpouring of social media-fueled calls for cancellation. Within the University, we have a clear set of policies on disruptive conduct that will guide our decision making regarding penalties and sanctions. Beyond the University, our civil polity has the tools to prosecute those who issue threats of violence, which all too often arise from the fray of heated discourse. Such actions cannot be minimized or ignored, and the University will work with law enforcement when applicable.

Note the promise to prosecute those who issue threats (there were reports of threats issued to the Institute of Politics) or disrupt speeches, and I’m sure that this will be enforced. Alivisatos is serious.

In the post I reported above about the IoP disruption, I wrote that there have been several attempts to protest speakers before (those included calls to forbid Steve Bannon from speaking here, which he never did). Those who oppose free speech on campus are not the faculty but the students and some community members. Even the student newspaper is basically against free speech if it’s “hate speech”. A newspaper!

And students have protested IoP speakers before, like former Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Some IoP speakers have even been shut down by both student and non-student disruption, including Cook County attorney Anita Alvarez, criticized for “state violence against brown and Black people” (their capitalization) and deplatformed by, among others, Black Lives Matter protestors.  Some speakers, like Natalie Jaresko, executive director of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, were subject to attempted student disruption, but protestors were kicked out by the cops. Note that all these protests came from the Left, like most recent disruptions and deplatformings in American colleges.

Finally, an op-ed at the Chicago Maroon, our student newspaper, has called for disbanding the IoP as a whole, dubbing it “an institution that encourages and enables new drones to enter a career in politics and spend a lifetime getting paid to manufacture the illusion of progress and problem-solving—the Institute of Politics.” That’s just bizarre. Are we not to have politics at all?

Back to the President’s statement:

I have called for an engaged University of Chicago, one where our creation of new fields of knowledge and our transformative educational experiences for students are also tied directly to our efforts to help societies address their greatest challenges. For an institution widely celebrated for developing the Chicago Principles, we should recognize that we occupy a distinct place in the higher education landscape; with it comes an obligation to model the tough work of practicing free expression.

Democracies depend critically on free expression. For this reason, today, we must do more to engage externally to educate about and model the healthy practice of free expression, specifically to advocate for its advancement across academia and throughout the world. At current count, more than 90 universities have adopted or endorsed the Chicago Principles, and in the coming months, I will be reporting more on how we can expand our efforts to advance freedom of expression beyond the University.

I invite you to consider the opportunity that this inflection point poses to our community. Whatever your role may be, before each of us are avenues to enrich our knowledge and understanding through the work, research, and learning that arises from our collective culture of free expression.

One of the things I like about this statement is, as I said, that it doesn’t try to temper free expression on campus with the false promise that “We can have both free expression and civility and respect towards each other.” Nor does he imply that free expression must be tempered when it offends people or could cause “harm”.  Alivisatos has issued a hard-nosed, straight up call for free expression, and a strong reaffirmation of the Chicago Principles. Ceiling Cat bless him!

Finally, remember that we are a private university and needn’t abide by the First Amendment’s strictures. We have done so by choice, not because we have to. And we’ve gone farther than almost any University i America in creating a culture of free speech.

14 thoughts on “U of C President affirms freedom of speech on campus

  1. Marx wrote about “ruthless criticism of all that exists”. And language is intrinsically meaningless,” says Bataille. Thus, Alivisatos asserts power over the social construct of knowledge, designed to systemically preserve the hegemony.

    Foucault uses the term ‘socialist realism’ to denote the role of the writer as observer. However, the subject is contextualised into a neocapitalist paradigm of
    consensus that includes reality as a reality.

    Thus, Alivisatos’ claim that “Democracies depend critically on free expression” itself is not in fact critical, but a retrocapitalist paradigm of social bondage.^**

    [ I kid I kid! ]
    [ of course the affirmation of free expression is empowering. Bravo President Alivisatos! ]

    **For more like that, see here: https://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/

  2. Concerning the disruption of free expression, one of the most alarming developments of recent years is what certainly appears to be (although there may not be statistical evidence) the increasing use of the so-called “heckler’s veto” by various aggrieved groups on campus to silence those speakers to whom they are in zealous (often fanatical) ideological opposition.

  3. A beacon, it is. Something that inspires the hope that not all is lost.*

    *one of the things I am having difficulty wrapping my olde man mind around is, given what has happened in the past decade or so, that is not hyperbole. At least I don’t think it is.

  4. I am glad there is still a beacon of rationality to look to in this increasingly dogmatic crazy world.
    I wonder if any Universities in Australia have adopted similar principles.
    I shall try and find out.

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