The University of Chicago and its free-speech policy praised in the NYT

Greg Mayer called my attention to an opinion piece in today’s New York Times lauding the University of Chicago and our principled and outspoken president, Robert Zimmer. Click on the screenshot to see the article:

It’s largely about the University’s enlightened free-speech policy, something I’ve written about before (e.g., here and here). Remember, too, that the University of Chicago is a private university, and therefore not forced to abide by the First Amendment. But it does—and more.  Here’s a bit of the article:

The University of Chicago has always been usefully out of step with its peers in higher education — it dropped out the Big Ten Conference and takes perverse pride in its reputation as the place where fun goes to die. It was out of step again last year when Jay Ellison, the dean of students, sent a letter to incoming freshmen to let them know where the college stood in respect to the campus culture wars.

“Our commitment to academic freedom,” he wrote, “means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

The letter attracted national attention, with cheering from the right and caviling on the left. But its intellectual foundation had been laid earlier, with a 2015 report [JAC: read it!] from a faculty committee, convened by Zimmer, on free expression. Central to the committee’s findings: the aim of education is to make people think, not spare them from discomfort.

“Concerns about civility and mutual respect,” the committee wrote, “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.”

Those are fighting words at a time when professors live in fear of accidentally offending their own students and a governor needs to declare a countywide state of emergency so that white supremacist Richard Spencer can speak at the University of Florida. They are also necessary words. That isn’t because universities need to be the First Amendment’s most loyal guardians — in the case of private universities, the First Amendment generally doesn’t apply. They set their own rules.

Instead, it’s because free speech is what makes educational excellence possible. “It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears,” Louis Brandeis wrote 90 years ago in his famous concurrence in Whitney v. California.

. . . That is the real crux of Zimmer’s case for free speech: Not that it’s necessary for democracy (strictly speaking, it isn’t), but because it’s our salvation from intellectual mediocrity and social ossification. In a speech in July, he addressed the notion that unfettered free speech could set back the cause of “inclusion” because it risked upsetting members of a community.

“Inclusion into what?” Zimmer wondered. “An inferior and less challenging education? One that fails to prepare students for the challenge of different ideas and the evaluation of their own assumptions? A world in which their feelings take precedence over other matters that need to be confronted?”

You don’t hear college presidents talk like that these days—certainly not at Yale or Harvard. Greg adds that “the author of the opinion piece is a Wall Street Republican that the Times recently hired.” It’s a sad day when the prime defenders of free speech are Wall Street Republicans rather than progressive Leftists.

I can’t help but feel a swell of pride at these plaudits, even if they do come from a Republican. For I’m glad to be associated with a school that hasn’t caved in to the censors and Pecksniffs increasingly policing higher education in America and Britain.

In the article, Stephens gives one of the classic reasons to defend free speech (as interpreted by our courts), however offensive. These are of course the arguments made by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty:
If you can’t speak freely, you’ll quickly lose the ability to think clearly. Your ideas will be built on a pile of assumptions you’ve never examined for yourself and may thus be unable to defend from radical challenges. You will be unable to test an original thought for fear that it might be labeled an offensive one. You will succumb to a form of Orwellian double-think without even having the excuse of living in physical terror* of doing otherwise.
*JAC: Well, with the increasing popularity of “Punch A Nazi” views—with “Nazis” interpreted as “anyone whose political views I don’t like”—that physical terror is increasing.


  1. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    And it’s not just a matter of living up to the First amendment. There is an important natural custom of common sense and practicality that is in play here. We do not start and run institutions in this society with the idea that we may throw the institution under the bus at any moment. The idea that we would turn the asylum over to the inmates is clever for a laugh but would you do it?

    How can it be proper to turn the running of, the regulation and control of, a college or university over to the students. It is not a good idea and never should be. In some ways we may be attempting chaos as an approach to running our govt. but none of us are going to like the end result.

  2. Pliny the in Between
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    ” We do not start and run institutions in this society with the idea that we may throw the institution under the bus at any moment.”

    Based on Trump’s ascendance, I would have to say that a large segment of Americans would disagree.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted October 21, 2017 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      I kind of alluded to that at the last sentence to my comment, didn’t I. But that is the govt. not the institution.

  3. Steve Gerrard
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    “Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas.”

    It is really just that simple. None of the “we support…but” arguments ever succeed in working around that. Time for people to get over it.

  4. Posted October 21, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    “That is the real crux of Zimmer’s case for free speech: Not that it’s necessary for democracy (strictly speaking, it isn’t), …”

    Oh yes it is! A genuine democracy requires the freedom to openly criticise powerful interest groups, including governments.

    • Vaal
      Posted October 21, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      I was stopped, and puzzled by that part too.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted October 21, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      It isn’t just the First Amendment sense of free speech, which is that the government can’t suppress criticism of the government. It is also the academic or intellectual sense of free speech, that we should be free to criticize and defend both good and bad ideas.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted October 21, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Freedom of the press is most critical of all I think, all part of the free speech. Without a free press we would have been long gone by now. Oh yeah, another thing that Trump land does not like at all.

  5. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Bravo PCC(E), bravo University of Chicago, which I’ve always held in high regard, I guess because of the publications I’ve seen?…. or like a brand? Not sure…

    Free association thoughts about the free speech thing in no particular order or importance:

    Nobody in the world can possibly lay claim to absolutely perfect knowledge, understanding, etc.

    Free speech, when characterized as a “free for all” (as was done in Wellesley) is a moment where you clearly see how THEY plan to use free speech, and how THEY interpret others’ free speech. This says more about them than they do of free speech.

    How do we solve or even define problems if we ALL can’t talk to each other?

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted October 23, 2017 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      Another thought

      I think it should be a rule that every citizen try to view the world through citizens who are ostensibly very different from you – it might be difficult, but without free speech for them to get their ideas out, what chance is there to find how to repair the problems caused by terrible ideas? Or to even recognize your OWN terrible ideas?


  6. alexandra Moffat
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    “I can’t help but feel a swell of pride at these plaudits, even if they do come from a Republican.”

    Me, too, for having been lucky enough to attend in the late 1940s.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Day-um, that piece hit the refresh button on my faith in academia.

  8. Jim batterson
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, maybe you could forward the op-ed piece as a follow up to your note to your undergrad alma mater prez as a concrete good example of free speech policy at university

  9. Posted October 21, 2017 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    A letter on UC’s speech policy from America’s worst university president–George “I want to pee” Bridges.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted October 21, 2017 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      Lot’s of assertions in that, such as “proves critical to their success.” Not much data given to support them, though.

      It seems to be a popular thing now, to just claim things are true because they sound reasonable enough. Experience suggests that is not a very useful criteria, though.

  10. Ann Harman
    Posted October 22, 2017 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    Regarding the state of emergency so that Richard Spencer could speak:

    This wasn’t a freedom of speech issue; it was a safety issue. There was violence after Spencer’s rally in Charlottesville, VA. The University of Florida had to allow him to rent the Phillips Center due to free speech considerations, but was concerned about safety. The governor called the state of emergency so that the National Guard could assist in preventing violence.

  11. Todd
    Posted October 22, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Not to diminish the issue, but it seems difficult to ignore the political strategy behind the right’s accusations of suppression of free speech. These charges are wielded as a weapon to divide the left. Others have noticed this too.

    It’s important to ask whether they taking a principled stand or defending free speech opportunistically when it serves their own interests.

    The right wants their framing of the issue to drive the narrative. But it’s possible to both take the charges seriously and at the same time understand that they are also politically motivated.

  12. Tim
    Posted October 23, 2017 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    With the increasing hold of private interests over institutions such as universities, hospitals and many other services to the public, maybe it is time for constitutional protections such as the First Amendment to be extended to apply to any organisation providing a public service, not just to the government itself.
    It seems to me that governments in places such as the US and UK are increasingly using privatization not just as a supposed way to reduce costs (which it rarely is), but as a way to exempt public services from the obligations to respect the rights of the citizens which they would have if the services were provided directly by government.

  13. Posted October 23, 2017 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Hear, hear. I don’t give a fig who says the truth, it is what it is. I feel like the republicans who said that they didn’t leave the Republican Party, it left them. I feel the same way. I used to be a liberal but don’t use that label any more because first the conservatives poisoned the word and now the liberals have made a laughing stock out of it. It seems that today the word liberal is interchangeable with spineless.

    What ever happened to the brave liberals who risked life and limb fighting for labor rights, for women’s rights and plain old civil rights? They seem to be as gone as Joe Hill (Joan Baez is singing the lament in my head.)

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