The University of Chicago gets serious about student disruptions

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

Dear Colleagues,

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


  1. Craw
    Posted June 3, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    It’s not just students.

    • Posted June 3, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Isn’t incitement to riot a criminal offence in the USA?

    • Luis Servín
      Posted June 3, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      I just had a look at this guy’s twitter timeline and it is incredibly interesting. This tweet taken out of context by itself doesn’t do justice to the complex arguments presented by him on Trump, fascism and political violence. I would actually encourage people that are interested in the subject to have a look at it.

      • ploubere
        Posted June 3, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        I wish I had that kind of time, but unless the above tweet is satirical, it’s stupid. Every time there’s violence at a Trump rally, it helps him. It’s the worst thing his opponents could do.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted June 3, 2016 at 4:29 pm | Permalink


        • Diane G.
          Posted June 4, 2016 at 12:27 am | Permalink

          “Every time there’s violence at a Trump rally, it helps him.”

          Agree. Trump loves the riots. What he’d hate the most would be to get no attention whatsoever. And the MSM is just as culpable as the rioters, for giving him mountains of free publicity 24/7.

        • somer
          Posted June 4, 2016 at 4:30 am | Permalink


  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted June 3, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Certainly agree with his policy. If they truly want to stop the disruptions they must have harsh penalties for anyone that does these things. Otherwise, all the words mean nothing.

  3. Taz
    Posted June 3, 2016 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I love Prof. Coyne’s first suggestion – simple and hard to argue against.

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 4, 2016 at 12:30 am | Permalink

      And it makes one sad to realize how many got through elementary and high school without such education.

  4. merilee
    Posted June 3, 2016 at 3:56 pm | Permalink


  5. Filippo
    Posted June 3, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    ” . . . any student who tries to disrupt speech should be dealt with harshly.”

    They should be put in a safe space and have to listen to, e.g., Mantovani, Ferrante and Teicher, others, while I – a great enthusiast for their music – provide a running commentary on the musical selections.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted June 3, 2016 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

      Wouldn’t subjecting them to Mantovani and Ferrante & Teicher be punishment enough on its own — similar to the way US interrogators tortured Iraqi POWs with Metallica?

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 3, 2016 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    It sucks to have to be on such a committee. You come to work to do research and teach, but you also have to deal with immature, disruptive students. ☹️

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 4, 2016 at 12:31 am | Permalink

      Though at least it lets the chosen faculty get away from the little brats for a while…

  7. eric
    Posted June 3, 2016 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    …set against some students who see nothing wrong with disrupting and censoring invited speakers who make them feel “unsafe”

    Its so perverse. Somebody is coming into town to give a speech. So you gear up with eggs, tomatoes, signs, etc. You leave your dorm room, go down to where they’re going to speak, get in their face, maybe throw stuff, and do other things to prevent them from giving their talk. Your justification for this is you want safe space on campus. Um….


    Personally I’d save the ‘harsh punishment’ for repeat offenders. I’d treat first time offenders the way I’d treat civil disobedience or drunk in public; we’re going to remove you from the area (so you can’t continue to disrupt) and maybe you spend the night in jail. In the morning, you can go home; all charges dropped on condition of good behavior in the future.

  8. Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I wonder what my philosophy of math/nonclassical logics professor from UBC, Andrew Irivine, makes of all of this. He’s also a Russell scholar and a prominent member of the BCLU. And the one who explained to some of my colleagues how to do counterdemonstrations within the rules when some anti-abortionists showed up near campus.

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