In July 2014 the president and provost of the University of Chicago, "in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse," appointed a Committee on Freedom of Expression to draft a statement "articulating the University's overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University's community."
The Committee's report, released in January 2015, begins with a brief account of the University of Chicago's long, proud history of commitment to freedom of expression. It later clarifies that intellectual freedom is crucial not only for reasons of historical tradition but also because "without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university."
In between, the report provides a principled statement of free expression rooted not just in the University of Chicago's institutional history but also in the nature and purpose of higher education. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has since urged every college and university to adapt and adopt this statement (see FIRE's model resolution). Some already have. The core statement begins:
Because the University of Chicago is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community "to discuss any problem that presents itself."
The statement acknowledges that ideas inevitably 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.
To its credit, the statement acknowledges justifiable limits to freedom of expression.
The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.
But "these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression." There must be "a completely free and open discussion of ideas."
In a word, the University's fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.
The statement then reminds us that the remedy for bad speech is better speech and that universities should foster rational "debate and deliberation." Finally, it clarifies that the right to disagree is not a right to prevent others from speaking.
It is noteworthy that the statement never mentions the First Amendment. As a private institution, the University of Chicago's commitment to free expression is rooted in history and principle, not constitutional law. Even where the First Amendment applies, moreover, legal decisions over the past 30 years have limited its application to academic speech. What Chicago has provided is a principled statement of free speech, not a summary of First Amendment case law.
It is also important to note that this is not a comprehensive statement of academic freedom, which is the freedom to do academic work. In addition to free expression for faculty and students, academic freedom also includes related freedoms of teaching, learning, inquiry, assessment, curriculum development, academic governance, and access to information and ideas.
Free expression is for everyone, and is especially crucial in academic contexts. We can argue about the subtleties of academic freedom and the technicalities of First Amendment law but the University of Chicago statement on freedom of expression gets to the heart of intellectual freedom and provides a basis for further discussion. FIRE's model resolution should be adopted everywhere.