University of Chicago Principles, Freedom of Expression and Virginia’s Universities

by James C. Sherlock

Where does education stop and indoctrination begin?  

A useful demarcation line is freedom of expression. Many Virginia colleges and universities have crossed that line. Students, faculty and administrators live in fear of reprisal for speaking their minds.  

Some institutions maintain anonymous tip lines that lead to non-judicial procedures through which careers can be ended not only without due process, but without any indication of any crime or offense other than making someone uncomfortable.  

Which would get most Americans canceled two or three times a month.

I wrote in late September that a national survey of 55 colleges and universities about student perceptions of free speech on those campuses revealed horrendous results.   

Two of the universities surveyed were Virginia and Virginia Tech.  Some of the results there:

  • Tolerance measured the students’ willingness to allow controversial speakers to come and speak at their campus. UVa, 48.7, Virginia Tech 49.2.
  • Openness measured the student’s perceived ability to have difficult conversation on campus. UVa 60%, Virginia Tech 68.4.%.
  • As for ability to speak their minds, only 43% of UVa students felt they always could do so, 48.5% of Virginia Tech students.

So what have those two schools and the rest of the state-supported colleges and universities done about it?

A very useful national measure of post-secondary institutions’ commitment to freedom of expression is whether or not they have adopted or endorsed the University of Chicago’s famed principles from that school’s Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression in 2014. 

A non-profit named FIRE that sponsored the survey maintains a scorecard of which schools have endorsed or emulated the Chicago Principles. As of November 19 of this year, 78 schools had signed up.

Virginia Universities that have adopted or endorsed the Chicago Statement or similar principles are: 

  • University of Virginia College at Wise – 2015
  • Washington and Lee University – 2015
  • Christopher Newport University – 2018
  • George Mason University – 2018

State-supported institutions of higher education that have not:

  • The University of Virginia
  • The College of William and Mary
  • James Madison University
  • Longwood University
  • Norfolk State University
  • Old Dominion University
  • Radford University
  • University of Mary Washington
  • Virginia Commonwealth University
  • Virginia Military Institute
  • Virginia State University
  • Virginia Tech
  • Virginia Community College System

For what possible reason could those 13 Virginia institutions fail to endorse or emulate the Chicago Statement? They owe us an explanation.  

For those that might say that left-leaning universities avoid such statements, please consider that Princeton, Johns Hopkins, the University of Wisconsin System, the City University of New York, Amherst, Columbia, Georgetown, Smith, UNC Chapel Hill, and ultra-radical Boston University have adopted them.

The Boards of Virginia institutions can adopt those principles and they should do so without delay. They don’t need to change a comma. We’ll watch for the press releases. FIRE provides a handy scoreboard for us to track their progress.  

So, let’s see the Chicago Statement itself and try to discover what our institutions of higher learning that have not adopted the principles therein might find objectionable.

Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression 

The Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago was appointed in July 2014 by President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Eric D. Isaacs “in light of recent events nationwide that have tested institutional commitments to free and open discourse.” The Committee’s charge was 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 has carefully reviewed the University’s history, examined events at other institutions, and consulted a broad range of individuals both inside and outside the University. This statement reflects the long-standing and distinctive values of the University of Chicago and affirms the importance of maintaining and, indeed, celebrating those values for the future.

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.”

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.

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, 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.

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. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.

As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. 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. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

See anything objectionable?  Me neither.