Over the past few years at the University of Chicago we’ve had several talks disrupted and prematurely ended by student protests. On February 21 of this year, for instance, Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid was shouted down and threatened by the some of the audience because he opposed the BDS movement and said some good things about Israel (video posted by Eid here). That’s a no-no on a campus, and it was worse because he was Palestinian, and seen as a traitor (no matter that Eid has also criticized Israeli violations of Palestinian rights). The University police intervened, removed the demonstrators, but also ended the talk prematurely.
This disruption of free speech, like others, violated the University of Chicago’s “free expression” policy, which I see as one of the nation’s best, and has been a model for policies at other schools. Apparently disturbed by the student disruptions, the University is now formulating a “disruption policy.” Yesterday, faculty received the email below from the University Provost:
From: Eric D. Isaacs
Re: Faculty Committee on University Discipline for Disruptive Conduct
Date: June 2, 2016
In recent years, faculty committees generated a series of reports and actions that articulate the University’s deeply held values concerning freedom of expression and the principles underlying protest and dissent on campus. Revisions to Statute 21 of the University Statutes (2013), approved by the Council of the Faculty Senate and the Board of Trustees, provided a basis for responses to issues involving free expression, including disciplinary action for disruptive conduct. The Report of the Committee on Dissent and Protest (chaired by David Strauss, 2014) affirmed that “dissent and protest are integral to the life of the University” and maintaining a community with dissent and protest “imposes obligations of mutual respect on everyone involved.” The Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression (chaired by Geoffrey Stone, 2015) reaffirmed the “freedom to debate and discuss” and the guarantee to all members of the University community of the right to “speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.” These steps have been well-received and influential, on our campus and nationwide.
To help put these values into practice, I have established a faculty committee to review and make recommendations about procedures for student disciplinary matters involving disruptive conduct, particularly interference with freedom of expression, inquiry and debate. I have asked the committee, as suggested in the Report of the Committee on Dissent and Protest, to reevaluate the All-University Disciplinary System. This system, approved in 1970 by the Council of the University Senate, was intended to address disruptive conduct but has seen little use due in part to cumbersome procedures.
The committee’s charge includes: 1) Conduct a review and make recommendations to revise or replace the disciplinary procedures and standards set forth in the All-University Disciplinary System; 2) Address the range of disciplinary sanctions that may be imposed, and make recommendations for responses in the midst of any event that is being disrupted; 3) Consider proper responses to disruptions involving individuals who are not members of the University community, and 4) Provide recommendations for educational programming on the importance of freedom of expression, fostering understanding among students that their right to free expression is the same right that they and we must accord to others.
I have appointed the following members to the Committee on University Discipline for Disruptive Conduct: [JAC: Names redacted]
Because it is important that an improved system be developed and approved as expeditiously as possible, I am asking the committee to submit its recommendations by December 15, 2016.
We have here a University administration and faculty absolutely committed to free speech (and I’m proud to be associated with this group) set against some students who see nothing wrong with disrupting and censoring invited speakers who make them feel “unsafe” or unsettled. The students will not win this one, and, though I’m a superannuated professor, my own recommendations would be these:
- During orientation, when incoming students are learning about sexual harassment, toleration, and other issues, they should also have a unit on free speech and what it means.
- Thus inculcated with the principles of free speech and the university policy, any student who tries to disrupt speech should be dealt with harshly. That would, I think, deter others from such childish and censorious behavior.