Free Speech and the University: A Closer Look at the Chicago Principles

Free Speech and the University: A Closer Look at the Chicago Principles

Drawing by Everett Cobain

Drawing by Everett Cobain

The newly elected United Conservative Party has announced that they will soon require post-secondary institutions in Alberta to adopt the Chicago Principles, or Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression—what Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides calls the “gold standard” for free speech on campuses. Much has been already been written on campus free speech, including by me, but in light of these policy decisions I believe it’s important to take a closer look at the Chicago Principles specifically.

In “Against Endorsing the Chicago Principles,” Prof. Sigal Ben-Porath (University of Pennsylvania) writes that they “represent an admirable effort to restate and reinforce colleges and universities’ long-standing commitment to free speech, a necessary condition for conducting research and advancing knowledge,” but also points out “the false assurance they offer the colleges and universities who endorse them. They rely on a legalistic and formal framework that purports to offer a response to a set of problems that has little use for such blunt tools.” In her view, the Principles do not address the underlying tensions of the free speech debate: “free speech that protects the expression of biased views creates an unequal burden that they are made to carry—especially as free speech today is too often used as a political tool by the right.”

In a response, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni Michael Poliakoff responds that Prof. Ben-Porath “politicizes the discussion,” and that “what is bias to one person may reasonably be seen as truth by another: that is precisely why the free exchange of ideas alone can further understanding.”

Inside Higher Ed published these two articles as contrasting positions in the free speech debate; however, we should note that one of these writers is actively in the classroom and the other is not.

As someone who has taught a variety of politically charged subjects to diverse classrooms since 2012, I am interested in examining why these Principles may be seductive to those who quite reasonably want to open up speech, while also identifying the ways this report erases or overlooks historically or materially grounded considerations of institutional or state power.

The report committee was charged with “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” Debate is often an important part of learning. Scholarly analysis involves being able to make claims and support them. Indeed, much of my discipline and others is grounded in arguments and counter-arguments. However, not everything should be up for debate. As recently as a couple decades ago, it would not have been unusual for a class to stage a debate on gay marriage, and today students are sometimes asked to debate trans people’s pronouns. Debates that can be “won” on rhetoric alone, or appeal to norms, do not contribute to understanding of issues at hand. Debating the rights of marginalized people is always undertaken at the expense of those very people; debate is a useful tool but not universally applicable. A dialogic approach to learning can both sharpen each position and generate new perspectives, but not if it reinforces oppression.

The report espouses many of the same commitments I believe are essential for knowledge production and education in the academy. That “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think” seems transparently true, as asking students to see the world in different ways—whether through literature, philosophy, or scientific paradigms—can be unsettling. For example, I often teach Angry Inuk, Althea Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary about the Inuit seal hunt; the film confronts viewers with images of brain-eating, seal viscera and skinning, and babies laughing while snacking on bloody raw seal—deliberately uncomfortable for people accustomed to consuming meat purchased in styrofoam and plastic wrap. If this makes you uncomfortable, it’s important to think about why, and to evaluate your own relationship to food and colonial capitalism.

Yet there are different kinds of discomfort, with different relationships to the dominant social norms and structures. A student once told me about a professor who began the term proclaiming, “Anything goes in my classroom. We’re allowed to say whatever we want because this is a safe space for speech.” At one point, the class, including the professor, expressed some transphobic views and argued that non-binary people aren’t real. This student, as the only out non-binary person, had to explain their own existence to the class. Discomfort can be an important part of learning, but the kind of discomfort that challenges dominant worldviews is fundamentally different than the kind of discomfort that reinforces existing systemic oppression. Requiring a student to justify their gender or other aspects of identity has the effect of shutting down their speech rather than opening it up. In the name of free speech, the professor here failed to uphold critical and pedagogical standards.

The Report does not differentiate between the different spaces (classroom, conferences, labs, lecture series) and roles (student, instructor, professor, invited speaker) within the university. When I teach Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Sexy,” in which a young white woman has an affair with an older Indian man, students have commented that she is a “jezebel” and deserves to be treated poorly because she knows the man is married; this is acceptable speech in the classroom as it is my job as instructor to provide a pedagogically sound reframing that is grounded in critical (rather than reactionary) analysis. But should we invite a speaker who gives a talk on how women are “jezebels” and who uses “Sexy” as a story that supports that? This case is not about stifling someone’s speech but maintaining the rigour of analysis much as peer review, no matter how flawed, works for academic journals. We must attend to context and distinguish between spaces and speakers, students and those bestowed with legitimacy and authority.

The Report is careful to point out the dangers of privileging civility, and admits that some limits should be placed on speech; this passage is worth quoting:

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.

The language presupposes deviation from some abstract norm as disagreement or offence, but it is power-neutral. Who gets to decide what is offensive? Could a man claim to be offended by critiques of patriarchy or toxic masculinity? And is that the same kind of offence as a woman being shown a sexist film and told to think only about cinematography? Is offence to an individual or an ad hominem attack more egregious than offence to a group of people? That is, is the individual valued over the social or group categories because it is more easily identifiable and threatening to interpersonal civility? The report notes the law as a limit, but the law is dynamic, inextricably tied to the social and political. Moreover, in policing these limits, what constitutes incompatibility with university functioning and who decides? University administrators? What are the interests of administrators, especially when funded by the provincial government and corporations? Ultimately, the report acknowledges limits—the university, after all, would not function without a mandate and parameters—but the vagueness allows these limits to be manipulated or shifted to suit the interpreter.

The Chicago Principles thus have enough ambiguity to sound like “common sense.” In practice, however, the kinds of meanings that are ultimately attached to the vague language are hardly those championing critiques of power: governments, administrators, and other groups benefitting from and supporting existing systems of power get to decide what counts as “free speech,” and have the means to shut down critique.

The university, for all its problems and its reproduction of race and class, still has as its purpose knowledge production and education grounded in critical analysis—which is obviously threatening to the right. White supremacist, transphobic, and other hateful views have a wide platform, so why are they so adamant about being given a platform at the university? Having them speak at the university serves two functions: it provides legitimation of their ideas and delegitimization of the academy. If Faith Goldy, Ann Coulter, Islamophobes, white supremacists, TERFs, and their ilk are given a platform in the university, then all opinions—critical and reactionary—are equal commodities in the marketplace of ideas.

We don’t have radically free speech on campus for the same reason that not everyone gets to publish their editorials in venues with big audiences; for good or bad and in flawed ways there are reasons for gatekeeping, and not every opinion merits a platform at an institution devoted to pedagogy, critique, and knowledge production. It is also crucial to emphasize that censorship only happens from the state—for example, white supremacists can and do rally in public spaces all the time, and contentious public events such as alt-right Steve Bannon vs. conservative David Frum at the Munk Debates are becoming more common.

Moreover, we must recognize that it’s no accident that free speech is becoming an issue as more Black, Indigenous, POC, LGBTQ+, and working-class students and scholars are entering the university, critiquing the very structures of its institutional foundations and destabilizing the traditional role of the university in reproducing class, gender, and race. Indeed, the issue of free speech has historically emerged as powerful institutions feel threatened, and free speech organizations do not hesitate to sue those (see the case of Carleton PhD student Michael Bueckert) who point out their association with far-right groups—thus attempting to shut down the free speech of critique.

From the Edmonton KKK in the 1930s to University of Toronto in the 1980s, free speech has been mobilized when the powerful feel threatened. (See this Twitter thread by local historian Bashir Mohamed for a catalogue of these incidents.) These historical examples are repeated in current debates about free speech, with the white-supremacist ideology of the KKK re-inscribed as white replacement conspiracy theory. One prominent Canadian example is University of New Brunswick professor Ricardo Duchesne, who promotes white supremacy. After a group of academics signed an open letter denouncing him, the Canadian Historical Association weighed in, emphasizing the difference “between the important principle of academic freedom and indefensible and potentially dangerous arguments.” These collective efforts at maintaining the freedom to critique are crucial in taking the burden away from individuals (such as Bueckert) and rejecting reactionary and dangerous positions in the name of free speech.

The University as a public institution has a responsibility to uphold critique, especially when other institutions, such as the media, are at the mercy of advertisers and suffer from false objectivity and bothsidesism. We should be concerned not just about the freedom to critique but also access to accurate information in a post-truth marketplace of ideas. Censorship happens from the state, and the newly elected UCP has established a “war room,” a propaganda wing intended to combat empirical climate science; Postmedia, which owns four major newspapers in Alberta, hired a former Kenney staffer to lobby the government.

Indeed, the free speech issue is part of a global mobilization of institutions for the right, providing rhetorical cover as critique of power is suppressed. PEN International reports that, under recently re-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the “climate for free expression has severely deteriorated in India.” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has effectively banned gender studies at universities. President Jair Bolsonaro is threatening to cut funding to philosophy and sociology; whether this is mere bluster or a genuine plan, it has a chilling effect on the work of Brazilian scholars. These alarming developments point to the intensifying danger of stifling a diversity of ideas; calling students on campus who are protesting white supremacists “sensitive snowflakes” distracts from the real threat to knowledge production and dissemination.

The Chicago Principles proclaim, “without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university.” To that I would caution, if the university stands for everything, then it stands for nothing.

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