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University of Chicago releases sweeping free-speech statement

Tired of “civility” being cited to shut down campus debates? Irritated at the constant infringements on what you can say without getting hauled in front of a disciplinary board?

The University of Chicago may be the place for you.

A committee established by the administration in July, “in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse,” just released a report affirming the school’s zero-tolerance policy on restricting speech.

Whether inviting a communist speaker in the 1930s, celebrating free inquiry during the Vietnam War or just recently affirming that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable,” the school’s leadership has consistently placed free expression at the top of its values, said the report:

Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect 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.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t certain restraints on limited speech – defamation, “genuine threat or harassment,” or the Supreme Court-backed “time, place and manner” rules unrelated to content:

But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

The committee also addresses the so-called heckler’s veto:

Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.

The committee is chaired by law professor Geoffrey Stone, who has written two books on free speech.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education President Greg Lukianoff said in a press release the free-speech statement should be counted among other famous declarations of academic freedom: “We hope other universities will adopt similar policy statements in order to protect freedom of speech and academic freedom on their own campuses.”

Read the full statement.

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IMAGE: Chris Smith/Flickr

About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” Previously he led media and public relations at Seattle’s Discovery Institute, a free-market think tank. Greg is developing a Web series about a college newspaper, COPY, whose pilot episode was a semifinalist in the TV category for the Scriptapalooza competition in 2012. He graduated in 2001 with a B.A. from Seattle Pacific University, where he co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon.

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