U of C alum once again advocates disruption of free speech with no punishment

Here we go again: University of Chicago alumnus Matthew Andersson, who got a degree from our business school in 1996, has written a letter to the student newspaper trying to counter my own letter of February 22 that promoted free speech on campus.

We’ve met Andersson twice before, as he’s written two letters to the Chicago Maroon defending and promoting disruption of speech and whining about the University imposing punishments for those who violate campus regulations by disrupting talks (see here and here). I’ve put up a post critiquing each letter (here and here, respectively).

Andersson’s arguments have always been muddled, for he claims that disrupting a speaker is the best way to promote discussion (seriously?), and that students should be able to violate university regulations without any fear of punishment. (Last year the University affirmed that those who disrupt campus activities, including speech, are subject to discipline.)

Supporting his “no punishment” stand, Andersson cites the civil rights protests of the Sixties and civil disobedience against the Vietnam War, conveniently forgetting that civil disobedience is designed to violate the law and provoke arrests as a way of calling attention to the protestors’ plights. Further, the protests he cites were peaceful ones, in contrast to some of the more recent protests that Andersson likes.

Andersson has thus argued that because of their salutary effects on promoting discussion and social change, disruptive protesters should not be punished but rewarded for their contributions to “free speech”, which of course goes against the entire purpose of civil disobedience. If the Birmingham protestors or lunch counter integrationists had been given bouquets of flowers instead of being assaulted by cops (and racists) and dragged off to jail, they would not have received the attention they did.

Andersson’s lack of clear thinking has led him to statements like this:

In particular, the University’s commitment to open discourse has led it to unjustifiably punish those who interfere with the implementation of free speech policies.

“Interfere”, of course”, means “disrupt” or “shut down.”

Now Andersson has returned, once again defending students’ right to disrupt. His new letter, which is an explicit response to mine, can be seen at the link below (click on screenshot):

If I had just three words to respond to this misguided screed, they’d be “No it isn’t.”  But of course we all know there are exceptions to the right to speak without government interference: harassment, libel, inciting clear and present danger, and so on. So let’s look at a few of Andersson’s statements. I’ll be brief, as his letter is short. Nevertheless, in just a few words Andersson makes three misleading claims (his words are indented):

1.) The University is committed to suppressing free speech by punishing students who speak out. 

 As expressed in written documents, the University’s position appears to be not so much about ratifying the right to speak as it is about suppressing the instinct to speak out. This is a potential result of its articulated commitment to punish students (in the form of scholarship cancellation, academic probation, and expulsion) found in violation of its particular interpretations of acceptable behavior.

What can somebody say about this? The University encourages people to speak out, just in a way that doesn’t shut down somebody else. The promotion of free discourse depends on being able to say what you want, and then allowing others to challenge you. You can do that without violating University regulations, including picketing talks outside the venue, handing out pamplets, asking questions, and promulgating counter speech. Apparently those are not sufficient for Andersson.

As for punishments “found in violation of its particular interpretations of acceptable behavior,” well, read the University policy for yourself. “Its particular interpretations” are not some wonky set of guidelines, but this:

Statute 21 defines disruptive conduct to include, among other things, “obstruction, impairment or interference with University sponsored or authorized activities or facilities in a manner that is likely to or does deprive others of the benefit or activity of the activity of facility”

Andersson could, of course, criticize any punishment, in civil law or otherwise, as “violating its particular interpretations of acceptable behavior”. That’s just a weaselly way of dismissing regulations without giving any reasons.

2.) Banning Bannon does not suppress any of his rights. 

Professor Coyne surely advances good counsel by recommending that students sustain tolerance and an open mind in the presence of others who they may disagree with (an added benefit for faculty and administration alike). Often, there is indeed much to learn. But in the case of professional provocateurs such as Steve Bannon, it would be difficult to imagine how his rights might actually be suppressed, especially among the numerous channels for expression he already enjoys.

This is a fancy way of saying, “Yes, we should be able to listen to those whose words we don’t like, but Steve Bannon isn’t one of those. Besides, Bannon can speak anywhere, so he doesn’t need to speak here.”  But Bannon is not a “professional provocateur”, another carefully chosen Weasel Characterization designed to distinguish Bannon from those who really mean what they say. But Bannon does mean what he says, regardless of how offensive Andersson finds it. Hidden in this paragraph is the notion that Andersson is The Decider—the one person qualified to determine which speakers should be banned, de-platformed, or disrupted on campus. Well excuse me, but I’d prefer to let Bannon speak than let Mr. Andersson tell us which speech is acceptable here and which is just “provocation”.

3.) Disrupting speech, perhaps including violence, is an educational opportunity.

In my experience, free speech philosophy isn’t so much an a priori position one needs to take, or a set of rules, guidelines, contracts, codes, or comportment. Rather, it’s a readiness to act, and a willingness to lead. If political issues provide students with an initial impetus to publicly engage, that is a pedagogically productive opportunity that may expand into broader, more complex civic issues in a student’s life, ranging from environmental challenges to armed conflict, and the general dangers that can emanate from authority.

This is the weirdest interpretation of “free speech” I’ve ever heard (Andersson loves to re-define terms). Now it’s not 100% clear, given Andersson’s poor ability to write, that what he’s saying is justifying occasional armed conflict or merely protesting armed conflict on the part of others. But it’s been clear all along that he feels students should be able to interfere and obstruct University activities, and suffer neither arrest, detainment, or punishment for that. Andersson’s University would be one involved in continual disruption and fracas, affording no opportunity for People Not Approved By Andersson to speak.

It’s sad when not only a lot of our faculty and students, but also our graduates, like Andersson, hold such a tortuous and misguided view of how discourse should be promoted (and restricted) at a university. We’ve clearly not educated them about at least one important issue.



  1. Posted February 27, 2018 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    But in the case of professional provocateurs such as Steve Bannon, it would be difficult to imagine how his rights might actually be suppressed, …

    Does Andersson consider the rights of those on campus who want to listen to Bannon and consider what he says?

    Or are they allowed to listen only to people approved of by Andersson?

    • Posted February 27, 2018 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      I think that’s the idea.

    • glen1davidson
      Posted February 27, 2018 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      He just doesn’t think that people have a right to listen.

      Glen Davidson

    • Eric
      Posted February 27, 2018 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      I think he’s missed the boat entirely. It doesn’t occur to him that the violation is to the students who want to hear him, not Bannon.

      Probably because, in his opinion, nobody has a right to listen to speech he deems offensive.

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 27, 2018 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Too much to pick at in the pile here … I’ll go with what appears to be speech-means-more-than-speech.

    Speech as I know it means words, spoken or written, produced by one entity and received by another.. That’s it…. OR IS IT?…

    No, that’s it – people. Persons. Through a venue. A magazine. Printed letters on a piece of paper. How many other things do I need to write down? TV…

    It SOUNDS like this redefinition is not definition per se but generalizing, …nebulizing…?… that speech means acts… he says “willingness to act”…

    … and I’ve confused myself now. I imagine the author will help me out here.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 27, 2018 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Apologies – the quote is :

      “readiness to act, and a willingness to lead.”

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 27, 2018 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

      Sadly, things are no longer so clear in the US. Remember that our “activist” judges actively decided that corporations are individuals with free speech rights. Apparently, so are campaign contributions. The more the money, the more the speech.

  3. Michael Fisher
    Posted February 27, 2018 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Andersson loves his letters to the editor & comments splurges – I’ve found him on the FT, The Economist & The Guardian with no effort at all. He’s a weird one – he takes facts about the World, joins them up & stretches them to a high degree of twanginess [my word] – doesn’t do sources for his speculations though. The lack of source links puts him in the category of unintentionally fun-to-read [‘cept for on Free Speech], mild, functional conspiratard.

    [1] Four page listing of his comments at The Economist – some of them very interesting & amusingly half-baked – finishes 2012

    [2] Also from 2012 this gem at The Guardian quoted in full:

    Thu 9 Feb 2012 21.00 GMT

    Few in the civil sector fully understand that geoengineering is primarily a military science and has nothing to do with either cooling the planet or lowering carbon emissions (Report, 6 February). While seemingly fantastical, weather has been weaponised. At least four countries – the US, Russia, China and Israel – possess the technology and organisation to regularly alter weather and geologic events for various military and black operations, which are tied to secondary objectives, including demographic, energy and agricultural resource management.

    Indeed, warfare now includes the technological ability to induce, enhance or direct cyclonic events, earthquakes, draught and flooding, including the use of polymerised aerosol viral agents and radioactive particulates carried through global weather systems. Various themes in public debate, including global warming, have unfortunately been subsumed into much larger military and commercial objectives that have nothing to do with broad public environmental concerns. These include the gradual warming of polar regions to facilitate naval navigation and resource extraction.

    Matt Andersson
    Former executive adviser, aerospace & defence, Booz Allen Hamilton, Chicago

    Naturally the chemtrails loons have been gleefully quoting Andersson ever since

    BTW… I’m aware that ALL his claims are broadly true though massively inflated [cyclonic events!], but he’s weaselled that by referring to “technological abilities” [potentials]. Re the polar exploitation – he’s implying there’s active programs to speed the melting of the Arctic cap – kinda true, but needs explanation.

  4. glen1davidson
    Posted February 27, 2018 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    But in the case of professional provocateurs such as Steve Bannon, it would be difficult to imagine how his rights might actually be suppressed, especially among the numerous channels for expression he already enjoys.

    I don’t think anybody’s very worried about Bannon himself being shut up. The issue is free speech at U of C in this case, and whether one can learn from and debate the opposition.

    But mob disruption would be such an educational experience! For, it would lead to further mob suppression of the rights of speakers down the road.

    Exactly the opposite of what U of C’s policy of free speech and discussion of issues was meant to do.

    Glen Davidson

  5. Posted February 27, 2018 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    The smallest of slivers that exist in his favor is that of the content of Bannon’s ideas; they are old, tired, and generally eschewed. But since when has that toppled anyone from their soapbox. <–rhetorical.

  6. BJ
    Posted February 27, 2018 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I think Andersson’s position can be best described as “If you take away the right to disrupt the rights of people I don’t like from people I do like, that’s suppressing free speech, but suppressing the actual speech of the people I don’t like is not.”

    For people like Andersson, everything hinges not on some strongly held principle, inalienable right, or clear law, but on whether or not Andersson personally approves of a person who wishes to exercise their rights. Andersson’s approval is the only relevant factor when the question of a person’s right to speech is raised. Andersson’s approval also decides whether suppressing the speech of others is itself somehow “free speech,” or whether it is fascist conservatives trying to shut down the speech of the righteous. We can all imagine what this man would be saying if the UoC Republican club was trying to shut down a panel on feminism or a speech by Cornell West.

    Also, point three may be the stupidest, most confused attempt at obfuscation I have ever seen. I imagine Andersson really has convinced himself that the things he writes make sense, which just makes so much more tragic.

  7. J. Quinton
    Posted February 27, 2018 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Ironically, by responding to your previous writing on the subject with his own writing, he’s engaging in the type of measured discourse that you promote and he denies to other people he disagrees with.

    I’m surprised he didn’t try to get your previous piece deleted or censored.

  8. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 27, 2018 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Maybe this guy was standing on his head when he received his education at U of C. Some of the reasoning is upside down and some backward. It is a combination of confusion.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 27, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I agree wholeheartedly that no one should be permitted to prevent an invited speaker from making his spiel on campus. But what I would object to — what I think would be inimical to free-speech principles — would be for a university to adopted anything other than absolute viewpoint-neutrality regarding the conduct of audience members inside the debate forum.

    The university could adopt, I suppose, a policy that all audience members sit in strict silence during the presentation. What it should not do is allow Bannon fans to express their approval — by cheering, or clapping, or whistling, or waving placards — while denying to Bannon opponents in the hall an equal opportunity to express their disapprobation by booing, hissing, blowing the Bronx cheer, or waving their own signs.

    Speech in these United States — and most particularly political speech — ain’t for the faint of heart; its a raucous, rough-and-tumble sport. Chrissake, if anyone understands that, it oughta be a soi-disant revolutionary like Steve Bannon.

  10. Steve Gerrard
    Posted February 27, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Nice to see a free-flowing discussion of free speech with participation from all sides. It illustrates well why free speech is so important.

  11. Posted February 27, 2018 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I see you have linked to a letter from Mr Andersson (my inner voice imitates Agent Smith whenever I read that) and quoted excerpts; a letter with which you strongly disagree.

    You could have ignored it or posted a load of ad hominem attacks instead, but no, you have the courage of your convictions that he is wrong and that your arguments are adequate to sway people in your favour and that your audience are bright enough to understand your arguments and his and make an informed decision about who is right.

    I wonder why the alt-left opponents of Steve Bannon don’t have the same confidence in their own position and their audience. I am concerned that many of them might be scared they can’t debate Bannon on equal terms.

  12. Posted February 27, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Arbitrary censorship has been uncovered in a different venue, where Google Shopping won’t provide any results for “confederate flag”, yet is happy to sell you T-shirts, stickers, and buttons for the Symbionese Liberation Army and Rote Armee Fraktion (a.k.a., Baader-Meinhof Gang.)

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 27, 2018 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Under Google “Shopping” tab…
      confederate battle flag

      Produces results for me in the UK

      • Posted February 27, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        I found dozens of flags when I googlated “Confederate flag” or “Confederate Battle Flag”.

        Don’t know why Matt saw that problem earlier. A glitch in the matrix, perhaps.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted February 27, 2018 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

          Under the “Shopping” tab?

          • Posted February 27, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

            Yes. I’d post a screen shot, but that’s probably against DaRoolz.

            • Michael Fisher
              Posted February 27, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

              Nah – Da Roolz have nothing to say re embedded images: “Be judicious about posting videos and very long comments. I like good discussion, but essays are not on, particularly if you have your own website where you can post it. Embedded videos are okay, but please think before posting: do they add to the discussion? If your comment is longer than, say, 600 words, it is too long. If you want to write stuff longer than that, please get your own website!”

              • Diane G.
                Posted February 27, 2018 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

                Embedded pics used to be against da roolz, Michael. I believe that stretched back to the days when some participants still had clunky DSL (or worse?) internet connections. Some of those who remember the original roolz either haven’t noticed the change or just have the former so ingrained in their brains that they automatically act accordingly. 🙂

                Your posting of the revised version is helpful, as it may not occur to one that they’ve changed a bit over time!

          • Posted February 27, 2018 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

            Wow. I tried finding “gun” or “guns” in the Google shopping tab and got nada except a link to the Amazon site where, presumably, I can buy a gun. Maybe the Googles is having trouble today?

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 27, 2018 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

              Plus now you’re on some secret Federal registry of those trying to obtain guns…


              • Posted February 28, 2018 at 4:48 am | Permalink

                That’s going to be one very big registry. Or perhaps not so big, since nearly everyone in the US already has their guns.

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 1, 2018 at 1:41 am | Permalink

                OK, that made me curious. It’s not quite that bad. 🙂


                Perhaps this latest shooting in Florida will be a tipping point. The students & their allies are not letting the GOP/NRA get away with their “this is not the time to talk about it” dodge. Demonstrations continue, corporations are pulling their advertising from venues that support guns, and the issue is staying on the front pages (or their equivalent, these days) much longer than usual.

              • Posted March 1, 2018 at 3:32 am | Permalink

                That’s encouraging, Diane. Of course, the continuing rise in the number of guns in circulation means that owners are stocking up.

                A Washington Post analysis last year found that the average American gun owner now owns approximately eight firearms, double the number in the 1990s.

                This presumably means that the scare tactics used by the NRA has the effect of persuading existing owners to stock up, rather than persuading new owners to buy their first gun. I’m not sure where that leaves us, but fewer owners has to be a good thing.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted February 27, 2018 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

            Same for me – no results re guns/guns in “Shopping” although shop gun works fine under the “All” tab

            “Shopping” tab for knives/knife is very busy including military [not your camping/back woods] knives

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 27, 2018 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

              “Assault Knives,” then? 😉

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted February 27, 2018 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

                HaHa 🙂

                We have a seriously bad knife crime rate rise in inner-city metros within the UK. Teen boys carrying them for protection coming up against other teen boys carrying a knife for protection. The wrong sideways glance or bump of shoulder & what should be a brawl becomes a horror show. Plus we have alcohol legal at 18, but usually begun at 14-15. Plus kids stay out on the street to all hours.

                …37,443 recorded knife offences & 6,694 recorded gun offences in the year up to Sept 2017. 12,980 knife crimes taking place in the capital – 2,452 more than the equivalent year.

                Total number of stabbing deaths in London is 80.

                Knife crime rate increasing at 20%/yr against a background fall in all types of crime. It’s a cultural thing [a knife arms race] that has to be broken quickly – stamped down on hard. That means locking up a lot of kids for a lot of years for the message to get out. That’a a really bad solution of course, but it’s the one that’s likely to rise to the top – we’ll be building prisons left, right & centre or reducing the detention periods for other criminals.

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 1, 2018 at 2:53 am | Permalink

                We actually hear a little bit about that over here from time to time. Which makes me really regret my impossibly lame attempt at a quip. You appear to have the same inner-city “honor culture” that we’ve managed to perfect.

                In our experience, locking up “a lot of kids for a lot of years”–which we’ve certainly tried and keep trying!–hasn’t resulted in much improvement. Good luck to you!

                Given the order of magnitude of difference in the absolute numbers of victims of weapon violence between guns vs. knives–wouldn’t ya think enough USians would be clamoring for gun control that we’d somehow move the chain?

                IIANM, most polls show that to be the case; which only magnifies the corruption in our political class.

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted March 1, 2018 at 8:45 am | Permalink

                I had to look up “IIANM” 🙂

                I’m hopeful the UK knife thing may be brought under control. It is very high in public & press awareness & it will stay so. We’ll need a co-ordinated response & a lot of money thrown at the problem [especially police morale which has ben creeping downwards for at least 15 years]. Locking kids up as a sole knee jerk response will fail miserably.

                Guns not a serious problem – they’re hard to obtain & usually arrive on the scene via modified weapons. The modifiers get punished hard so not worth the risk.

  13. Posted February 27, 2018 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Another Canadian academic being silenced:


    “We encourage academic freedom, we encourage free speech but we also absolutely require and respect the responsibilities that come along with that….”

  14. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 27, 2018 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I’ve got it

    He’s going to come back with an essay that says “Ah. Hadn’t thought of that. Carry on!”

    It could be the Next Big Thing!

  15. Posted February 27, 2018 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Free speech is for all! except for you!

    Andersson I think, is not capable at this time (if ever) of putting that sentence together and acknowledging how it turns on itself.
    It is very simple but requires penetrating his own biases to see it. Fat chance?
    There is a conflict here in the above statement and will remain so until the last three words are gone and, to be sure, if what Andersson wants plays out, Bannon will be gone, along with free speech at the U of C.
    Lets hope not for the good Prof(E)’s beloved University.

  16. Jimbo
    Posted February 28, 2018 at 5:02 am | Permalink


    Is there a venue or outlet to publish your rebuttal to this misguided critique of your piece? Given UoC’s president wrote one of the best university policies in the nation on the subject (and a model for all other schools), defended Bannon’s right to speak as did your piece, you should have the last word.

  17. smegma
    Posted February 28, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I wonder how Andersson would feel if a bunch of students disrupted his class every day in the name of free speech? Any students out there willing to give this a shot?

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