Free Speech and the Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression as a Baseline Guarantee
I can’t understand who wouldn’t fully support a document supporting free speech at a formal learning institution.
But then I received a weekly update from the Heterodox Academy I received notice of this article from the Heterodox Academy, of which I’m a member. Sigal Ben-Porath has written Against Endorsing the Chicago Principles for Inside Higher Ed, December 11, 2018. Having recently dealt with a related issue at my own institution, I was interested in why someone might oppose such a thing.
First though let me establish what I’m talking about. In July 2012, The University of Chicago put out a Statement on Principles of Free Expression saying that “Fundamentally…the university is committed to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong headed.” It goes on. It allows that students and staff are free to criticize, contest, and condemn but they can’t obstruct disrupt or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views. It’s back in the news because at Williams College petitions for and against the Chicago Principles have been circulated. According to the article, the college appears to have responded by forming a committee with an interest in taking positive action. Sounds good, right?
As for the Ben-Porath’s article, I’m a bit mixed up after reading it. At first glance the author seems against endorsing the principles, and later seems to embrace free speech on campus. But, he claims that some students “…will find it harder to benefit from their education; they may be effectively silenced…” I don’ quite see the relationship between guaranteeing free speech on campus and students feeling they are worse off or silenced. I’m of the opinion that guarantees for free speech supports both education and speaking up.
Let’s cut to the chase and my own predisposition. I’m talking about parrhesia and for this I’ll go directly to Michel Foucault who presented six lectures on the topic. Parrhesia is generally translated to “free speech” and as Foucault points out, etymologically the Greek word means “to say everything.” The philosopher writes, “The one who uses parrhesia, the parrhesiastes, is someone who says everything he has in mind: he does not hide anything, but opens his heart and mind completely to other people through his discourse.” (Lecture 1). Later in the same lecture he captures the second part of what I see as the general sense of the word, “in parrhesia, telling the truth is regarded as a duty.” We speak and we have the duty to speak with truth. Isn’t this a hallmark of education?
In learning we deserve, I daresay we should demand, the right be offended.
Ok, to be honest we don’t say everything. Speech on campus is bounded by a) civil rights laws, b) freedom of speech laws, that are a limited freedom, for example one can’t divulge military secrets or yell fire in a crowded theater, and c) academic policies. The laws are designed to offer both protections and limitations. Academic policies often support but do not contravene the law.
Numerous rulings by courts have sided for unbridled free speech on campuses and colleges and in particular within university newspapers.
Ben-Porath notes rightly that free inquiry is at the core of what people do in academe, it’s certainly a supporting facet of inquiry and research. But the author says the main shortcoming is a academe’s false assurance offered by policies like the Chicago Principles. They fail to address or resolve current tensions around free speech. My guess is he means things like controversial speakers on campuses. Here’s where I think issues are getting mixed up. When a student comes to me as part of a course and asks about their right to engage in inquiry on a certain subject, or to present a view that may be provocative or controversial, I am thrilled we have a strong and clear policy that guarantees the student has a right to undertake the research, or present the view, so long as the student conforms to any applicable law. Period.
Other issues around free speech are not solved by the Chicago Principles, they are simply outside of the policy’s purview.
Other issues include:
Structural racism, sexism, ableism, genderism, ageism, classism (etc)
Disenfranchisement and support for greater agency of historically marginalized voices
Protests and public speakers on campus
Strong opinions by partisan voters and the right to protest
Students speaking up in classes or on campus
There are more. Nonetheless, these are rightly located in related discussions about structures and systems, and about means and ways that culminate in changes that are necessary to mitigate injustices and to support diverse viewpoints. The Chicago Principles in and of itself won’t solve these issues nor I argue are the Principles meant to be applied in such a way or said to have solved the issues.
Speakers on campus has been a very public issue but this is an issue outside of the classroom. It’s not right for anyone to shut down a speaker on campus, no matter how much one disagrees with the message or the person. It’s not right to vandalize buildings because a group doesn’t like a speaker. At times, students seem to forget they are adults who have the right to opt out of non-obligatory events. If a student doesn’t like a major, then major in something else. If a student or professor doesn’t like a campus speaker, or a protest group, don’t go or set up your own counter-speaking event. It’s that simple. We’re not talking legal issues in these instances, just taste and preference and community alliance.
Strong-arming one’s belief onto others is just a form of mob fascism — no matter what side of a political spectrum you are coming from.
If the Chicago Principles support allowing any invited speaker, as the statement does, then great. We must value our wonderful educational space, framed by laws and policies on one side and supported by documents like the Chicago Principles on the other. I want students to feel free to offer any viewpoint and likewise to offer any challenge, both within the context of our curriculum and on campus, to open up a discourse, and to learn from the engagement. Any statement or policy that supports students in doing is is welcomed so if there is ever a question about allowing this because someone finds some topic of inquiry distasteful, I can produce a document to show them.
Colleges and universities are micro-societies. People bump against on another in lots of ways, in the classroom and across campus. We educators in the formal learning environment have a duty to model what it means to live cooperatively, respectfully, and cooperatively.
If a student can’t navigate dissenting viewpoints in the relatively safe space of academe, I worry about them navigating dissenting viewpoints in the real world.
In my view, the Principles certainly do not set up some sort of snowflake catering feel-good room but neither do they promote agitation and anarchy. By engaging, students learn that discourse is normally the clash of more than one viewpoint and that lively debate doesn’t mean window smashing.
I agree with Ben-Porath’s view that free speech is necessary for education’s mission. This mission is not at odds with the larger idea of free speech across the entire campus. Nor do the Principles in any way inhibit ongoing discussions about how to better support free speech in all forms, which I think is the author’s main worry. Forum commenter “Law Professor John Banzhaf” writes that documents such as laws or the Chicago Principles “represent guarantees and set a legal floor for the protection which must be afforded speech, regardless of the consequences noted by the author.”
Foucault, M. (1983). The Meaning and Evolution of the Word “Parrhesia”: Discourse & Truth, Problematization of Parrhesia — Six lectures given by Michel Foucault at the University of California at Berkeley, Oct-Nov. Found online at https://foucault.info/parrhesia/foucault.DT1.wordParrhesia.en/
Sigal, B. (December 11, 2018). Against Endorsing the Chicago Principles. Found online at https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/12/11/what-chicago-principles-miss-when-it-comes-free-speech-and-academic-freedom-opinion
University of Chicago. (2012). Statement on Principles of Free Expression. Found online at https://freeexpression.uchicago.edu/page/statement-principles-free-expression