Free speech

The U. of Chicago’s Flawed Support for Freedom of Expression

In January 2015 the University of Chicago Committee on Freedom of Expression issued a brief report which eloquently made a case for the importance of free speech as “an essential element of the University’s culture.”  I commented at the time in an approving manner.  Over the ensuing months, the Chicago statement has gathered more and more approval.  In April the faculty of Princeton University incorporated much of the Chicago statement into a statement of their own.   On September 28, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) launched a national campaign asking colleges and universities to adopt the statement. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has also urged over 19,000 trustees to embrace it.

In an era when student activists on many campuses are attempting to silence expression of views they disagree with, the University of Chicago statement is a welcome counter-measure.  It is easy to see why principled scholars and organizations concerned about the integrity of the university are drawn to it.

Not the Whole Loaf

But I urge caution.  The Chicago statement is, in effect, half a loaf.  And sometimes half a loaf can be worse than none.  The basic problem with the statement is that it presents a context-free defense of freedom of expression. It does not offer any reason why such freedom is important and, in the absence of such a reason, it amounts to an endorsement of much of what is currently wrong with our colleges and universities.

To be sure, there is much in the statement that is attractive and endorsing it makes sense as a tactical move against “social justice warriors” who want to preempt important debates.  If the Chicago statement were to be understood as mainly a call for the university to respect the rights of outside speakers to have their say, regardless of viewpoint, it would be welcome without any serious reservations. But the statement does not contextualize itself to outside speakers and appears to apply equally to speech within the university.  The differences between outside speakers and speech within the university, however, are profoundly important.  The latter involve considerations that the Chicago committee ought to address but did not.

Four Flaws

In that light the statement has some serious flaws as an enunciation of general principles.  It is easy to imagine new circumstances where the positions laid forth in the Chicago statement would themselves become impediments to good education.  Indeed, some of these circumstances are already here.

There are four flaws. The statement ignores the need for true speech, wrongly elevates free speech over teaching, fails to say why free speech is important on college campuses, and is conducive to the further trivialization of the university.

First, the statement says “freedom of expression,” “freedom of inquiry,” and “freedom to debate” are “fundamental” to the university.  Surely they are.  The trouble is that other principles are no less fundamental.  One might think of the pursuit of truth; the obligation to distinguish the important from the trivial; integrity in research; respect for freedoms besides academic freedom; and genuine care for the welfare and educational prospects of students.

 The Pursuit of Truth

I grant that most of these do not spring readily to mind for faculty members who are not at the moment faced with a conflict, say, between freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth.  But such conflicts are never far off.  People lie, frequently.  Freedom of expression permits lies and misrepresentations and, up to a point, protects the liar in his exercise of the right.  The “fundamental” regard of the university for freedom of expression, however, is in direct tension with the fundamental regard the university must also have for the truth.  How does the Chicago statement handle this?  It is silent on the matter.  The statement does indeed say that “freedom to debate and discuss” is not absolute.  That freedom must bend in some cases:

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.

Defamation, threats, harassment, and violations of privacy are out.  But on matters such as fabrication of data, perjury, deliberate historical misrepresentation, suppression of discrepant evidence, false testimony, plagiarism, and the like, the statement says nothing.

I would not infer from this that the University of Chicago Committee on Free Expression regards these as inconsequential matters.  Rather, it was charged with addressing the principle of freedom of expression and it did so, leaving various complications aside.

A Dangerous Mistake

Perhaps the University of Chicago is a community so well ordered that it could trust itself to deal with “freedom of expression” as an isolate—a fundamental that need not be considered in the company of other fundamentals.  Be that as it may, I think it is a dangerous mistake for colleges and universities across the country to adopt this statement as is, without creating a conceptual context in which other fundamentals are given due consideration and weight.

Let me acknowledge that extending the discussion in the direction of other such fundamentals may well prove difficult and frustrating.  A simple statement of principle—that freedom of expression is fundamental for a university—can be pure and inspiring.  Recognition of counterbalancing and sometimes contradictory principles that must somehow be made to mesh is less an occasion for rhetorical triumph.  But it returns us to the real world of higher education where flawed men and women struggle for achievement in a special kind of community.

Where’s the Word ‘Curriculum’?

Second, the Chicago statement treats freedom of expression as something unmoored by the curriculum.  Indeed the words “curriculum” and “course” (in the sense of an academic course) never appear in the statement.  The only example of freedom of expression that is cited is a Communist Party candidate invited to speak on campus by a student organization.  All of the other statements on academic freedom are hortatory declarations of the abstract principle.  But the reality is that colleges and universities must make practical choices to teach this subject, and not that one.

If they have—as the University of Chicago has—a core curriculum, they must decide which disciplines should be represented, and which not.  No university is so large that it can encompass every subject.  It must makes choices, just as the individual faculty member must makes exclusionary decisions in every syllabus and every time a class meets.  The license to make these choices is part of academic freedom but it is a particularly fraught aspect of academic freedom because it presents the question:  Who decides?

One approach maximizes the autonomy of the individual faculty member to teach what he wants to teach.  But even the university that leans far in this direction reserves the key power to approve a course or not.  And the best colleges and universities devote great care to the work of shaping their academic programs.

In short, the “fundamental” right of free expression is dramatically limited in the single most important context of higher education:  the college or university’s decisions about what should be taught.

What Should Be Taught

The Chicago statement in this regard sounds like a dream of faculty members reveling in the idea that free expression can be upheld as the governing principle of an institution that is in fact ruled by a dramatically contrary principle:  the need to provide students with a coherent education.

Third, the assertion of the “fundamental” value of freedom of expression sidesteps the underlying rationale for free expression.  The statement treats free expression as so integral to the university that no explanation is needed; just assertion.  Perhaps this reflects disagreement among the committee members on what the rationale for free expression should be, but the omission is odd.  In my view what makes free expression fundamental is that it prevents sleepwalking.

It treats every idea as open in principle to challenge, which means even the best ideas must be maintained by alert, intelligent, and informed people who are ready with good arguments and robust evidence, and who are also ready to put in the necessary time and effort to defend them.  Free expression exists as the antidote to intellectual complacency and the slumber of settled propositions.  It does not allow “consensus” or appeal to the authority of either the crowd or the expert to settle a dispute.

But if I am right about this rationale, free expression should lean towards these ends.  Free expression should not itself be a cover for mob rule (“consensus”), mere doctrine, or efforts to shut the door to further inquiry.  The rise of “studies” departments that are little more than ideological satrapies on campus does not jibe with free expression.  To hold a legitimate place in the community of higher education, a field of study must be willing to treat even its most basic ideas as hypotheses that are open in principle to challenge, not as matters of settled belief.

Chicago vs. Yale

The Chicago statement veers away from any such understanding of freedom of expression.  As far as the statement goes, all expressions enjoy the same title to “freedom of expression.”  That’s a view that comports pretty well with the First Amendment, but comports very poorly with the reasons why higher education values freedom of expression.

As it happens, the Chicago statement can be usefully contrasted with an earlier statement of freedom of expression issued in December 1974 by Yale, as the result of the deliberations of a committee appointed by President Kingman Brewster.  The Yale statement is every bit as vigorous in its support for freedom of expression as the Chicago statement, but at 31 pages, it is longer than the Chicago statement (3 pages), more in-depth, and attentive to complications that the Chicago statement ignores.  Perhaps most importantly, the Yale statement explains why freedom of expression should matter to a university.  Its first sentence declares: “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching.”  There is nothing comparable to this in the Chicago statement.

Fourth, the Chicago statement rests easily with the post-modern and (ironically) the anti-foundationalist condition of the contemporary university.  In treating free expression as an end in itself and divorcing it from any concern about the processes that establish and dis-establish intellectual authority, the statement gives license to the forces that have brought on the regime of triviality, curricular incoherence, narcissistic teaching, and intellectual aimlessness that have beset so many colleges and universities.  Again, these conditions may not prevail at the University of Chicago, but when other colleges and universities emulate or adopt the Chicago statement, they are also giving their imprimatur to an education that endorses formless exploration over purposeful inquiry.

An Unmoored Freedom

These four flaws in the Chicago statement have a kindred character.  All four have to do with the superficiality of the statement, which leaves out essential things:  other fundamentals; the shaping of the curriculum which is necessarily guided by principles above and beyond freedom of expression; the purpose of the college to which freedom of expression is necessarily subordinate; and the tendency of an unmoored freedom of expression to perpetuate the intellectual weaknesses of the contemporary university.

There are, of course, competing views about the purposes of higher education, an institution that must somehow blend discovering new knowledge, transmitting existing knowledge, sustaining the legacy of civilization, shaping character, preparing students for productive lives, and teaching students how to live responsibly in freedom.   Free expression is a vital component of several of these ends, and none more so than the last.  We uphold freedom of expression in large part to teach students to become citizens who can govern themselves wisely in our representative democracy.  But that requires that we understand this freedom not as an end in itself but as purposeful—which in turn means that we must pay attention to its purposes.

I’d recommend that the University of Chicago continue the work of the committee that wrote the statement by asking and answering the follow-up questions:  Why is freedom of expression important?  How does it advance the education of students?

It is in the spirit of the Chicago statement to welcome debate.  As far as I can tell, there has been little or no debate over the statement itself.  I offer these four points for the consideration of any college or university that is considering FIRE’s invitation to endorse the Chicago statement.  And I offer them as well for the benefit of the University of Chicago, which would seem to welcome, to borrow President Robert M. Hutchins’ apercu, the kind of “free inquiry [that] is indispensable to the good life.”

2 thoughts on “The U. of Chicago’s Flawed Support for Freedom of Expression”

  1. The problem is obvious. In the first place, there is a “University of Chicago Committee on Freedom of Expression”. It should be as redundant as a “New York Yankees Committee on Baseball”.

    Secondly, it says ‘the importance of free speech as “an essential element of the University’s culture”’. Free speech is not an ‘essential element’ of the culture. It either completely dominates it, to the exclusion of all other factors, or it doesn’t exist.

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