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.

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21 responses to “University of Chicago Principles, Freedom of Expression and Virginia’s Universities”

  1. Not hard to give you an answer for that. I do agree that if you don’t care for what your alma mater is doing, exercise your right and simply tell them, we disagree with the schools’ direction, until it changes to one more favorable, we will not be doing anything to promote or support the school.

    1. I wrote a letter to that effect to Virginia Tech in 2007.

      1. sherlockj Avatar

        Send the article to today’s Board at Tech. They might surprise you.

  2. “… 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.”

    That’s the whole issue in a nutshell. There are too many people in this country who think they have a God-given natural right to not be offended – and these people are now running many of our so-called institutions of higher learning.

  3. sherlockj Avatar

    I will be surprised if UVA’s Board doesn’t adopt this policy. We’ll see.

  4. I’m wondering at your surprise. Why would you think UVA would adopt the Chicago Declaration?

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      The Board needs a win for freedom of expression.

  5. I would be surprised if UVa adopted the Chicago Declaration. It’s bound to get pushback from the campus totalitarians. I can’t imagine Jim Ryan proposing such a thing. I hope I’m wrong.

    And even if UVa does adopt the Declaration, will it change anything?

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      The Board sets policy. Doesn’t need anybody’s approval.

    2. sherlockj Avatar

      Change anything? I certainly hope so. That anonymous tip line can light up with allegations of violations of the policy. Will also take the ball out of Ryan’s exclusive hands on a lot of issues.

  6. Nancy_Naive Avatar

    Here Cap’n. Just reprint this.– — it uses all the same buzzwords and is without doubt simpatico.

    Example: “Those who are most sensitive about “politically incorrect” terminology are not the average black ghetto-dweller, Asian immigrant, abused woman or disabled person, but a minority of activists, many of whom do not even belong to any “oppressed” group but come from privileged strata of society.”

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      Those activists are usually a “whiter shade of pale”. A man of my acquaintance has a tree full of in-laws that meet that description. None of them need Matthew Fisher’s organ solos to wring drama out of incoherence.

      1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

        Yeah, I know. He was crazy not stupid.

  7. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Adopting the Chicago statement of principles apparently does not necessarily make an institution more tolerant. According to Mr. Sherlock, UNC Chapel Hill has adopted them. Yet, that institution scored lower than either UVa or Tech in the FIRE survey. UVa–55.6, Tech–55.3, UNC Chapel Hill–52.1.

    1. sherlockj Avatar

      There are no guarantees in life.

  8. If nothing else, adopting these principles would at least give a standard to hold the Board, admin, professors, TAs and students to so that violations of that free speech spirit would deserve any reprimands. No guarantee as the UNC example points out, but you have to start somewhere…and hold people accountable!

  9. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    This got me thinking about my days in college and law school. I cannot imagine any instructor even giving a passing thought about worrying whether the content of an argument should be suppressed because it made the listener uncomfortable. How did academia sink so fast?

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      “How did academia sink so fast?”

      GREED for ever more money, power, and control. The tactics academia use to gain those objectives today are indoctrination, grade inflating, and entertainment of students in lieu of teaching and standards that demand that students hard work for success. Save for some STEM, it is hard to funk out of many colleges today.

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        One result of these “despicable tactics” is that in America today there is a great and growing shortage of skilled native American workers. Hence, America has to farm out ever more jobs overseas (think India, for example), or import foreign workers to do American jobs that Americans cannot or will not do, both high and very high paying jobs, as well as low paying jobs. Meanwhile, our middle class shrinks under the weight of an oppressive and dysfunctional system of education and government in America. And freedoms evaporate.

  10. […] Sherlock has already taken a bit of this apple here. I’m circling back for a second look at the data generated by the rankings, a joint project […]

  11. […] have recommended both publicly and privately that my University adopt the University of Chicago Principles , or their […]

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