Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago: A Conversation with Professor Geoffrey Stone

 /  Oct. 2, 2018, 3:42 p.m.

Prof Geoffrey Stone

Professor Geoffrey Stone is the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Stone joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1973 after serving as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. He later served as Dean of the Law School (1987-1994) and Provost of the University of Chicago (1994-2002). Professor Stone has written numerous books and amicus briefs in Supreme Court cases, and has helped represent President Bill Clinton at the Supreme Court in Clinton v. Jones. He will teach a class on the First Amendment in the College this spring.

My original goal with this article was to write a research piece on the origins of freedom of expression on the University of Chicago campus. I set out to find examples of events which shaped the University’s commitment to this principle. One instance in particular stood out to me: in 2014, University President Robert Zimmer formed the Committee on Freedom of Expression, a group of seven distinguished professors from all different fields of study. This committee would produce a report on the topic of freedom of expression that would later come to be known simply as the “Chicago Statement.” Though only a few pages long, the Chicago Statement is a powerful testament to the University’s values and is so complete in its provisions that it has come to be adopted by several dozens of universities and colleges around the country who seek to uphold a commitment to freedom of expression. After reading the report, I was able to speak with Stone. Our interview was informative to the point that I decided it could stand alone. Here it is for your reading pleasure:

Hello, Professor Stone.


I want to begin by talking about the Report. Specifically, it references early examples of promoting freedom of expression on the UChicago campus, but what prompted the most recent surge in favor of freedom of expression?

There had been instances at other institutions in the year or two leading up to 2014 where there had been pressure to disinvite speakers and disruption of some events, so President Zimmer decided it would be useful to have a policy statement that expressly defined what our values were in this regard. That way, if and when issues arose here, we would have a specific statement to fall back on as a way of thinking through the issues.

Beyond those mentioned in the rather condensed report, what precedents did the committee refer to when crafting its findings?

We reviewed the history of the University, both the general history and in particular some of the issues that arose during the McCarthy era. We looked at how the University dealt with the issues in the late sixties which led to the Kalven report and the University’s affirming the fundamental values of free expression, and in particular, of the University’s commitment to a position of neutrality on public issues that do not directly affect the University. Basically, in the Kalven Report, the University said that it was not its place to take positions on such issues, but it is for members of the faculty, student body, and community to wrestle with these issues without “Big Brother” stepping in to declare what views are “right” and what views are “wrong.” We also looked at the examples of other universities and talked to faculty and students at UChicago and to academic leaders at other schools. The goal of our report was to state what we believed to be the well-established values of the University of Chicago; it wasn’t so much to try to articulate different values than the ones we had stood for in the past, but to make those values explicit in our Report.

How has the type of expression being protected changed throughout the University’s history—in the report it mentions that an early example of protected expression was that of inviting the Communist party’s candidate for President to speak at UChicago, but now it seems as though it is oftentimes conservative freedom of expression being protected on campuses. For example, supporting the right of Dr. Charles Murray or Steve Bannon to come speak—

Let me clarify—it’s not the right of Steve Bannon and it’s not the right of Charles Murray. They have no right to speak at our University. It’s the right of our students and faculty to bring people to our campus who they want to hear. It’s an important difference.

Presently we associate protecting freedom of expression with protecting more conservative freedom of expression. What do you think has shifted the censorship in this regard, and how do we divorce the idea of protecting freedom of expression from any political connotation? I think it’s a principle that is applied across the board.

That’s exactly the point. The argument in favor of allowing William Foster—the head of the Communist Party—to come to UChicago in the 1930s at the invitation of students at a time when almost every other University in the country would have prohibited it, was not because the University favored Communism, it was because there were students at the University who wanted to hear his views and it was the obligation of the University to allow them to hear the views that they wanted to hear. In that same spirit, we would today protect the rights of students who wanted to hear Charles Murray or professors who wanted to hear Steve Bannon. It doesn’t matter whether the views are Conservative or Liberal or whatever—it is the notion that it is the freedom to bring to campus and to hear the views from whatever perspective members of our community want to hear that is protected. It’s about protecting the opportunity to debate ideas. Period. What’s interesting about this particular moment is that historically, it has been liberal ideas that have most often been the target of suppression, whether it was the Communists, or the Civil Rights movement, or the anti-War movement, or the Women’s Rights movement, or the Gay Rights movement, etc. This is a bit of an unusual period because it’s primarily conservative views that are being objected to. But the same principle applies and for the same reason that we would allow people to come talk about Communism, or a right to abortion, or gay rights long before those views were generally deemed acceptable.

It almost just emphasizes the importance of applying the principle across the board because you never know when the pendulum is going to swing back.

The central principle is that we don’t want people in positions of authority to dictate what ideas are good and what ideas are bad, because we know from our own experience that they will often be wrong and they will often abuse that power.

Let’s talk about some specific clauses in the Report, particularly the section which states that the protection of freedom of expression does not extend to any speech which constitutes a direct threat or harassment. How does the University determine when something constitutes a direct threat or harassment? Is there a standard protocol to which it adheres in cases such as these?

A direct threat basically means “if you don’t do what I want, I will kill you.” It’s a direct statement from one person to another that is taken seriously and meant seriously. It is not things that somebody says that makes someone else uncomfortable. Harassment is generally taken to mean speech directed at another person that is persistent, despite the person to whom it is directed wanting it to stop. So if someone keeps calling you and saying things to you that are unpleasant and you ask them to stop calling but they keep doing it, that would be harassment. Both terms are a little vague, as they are in the law, so there is room under the policy for some ambiguity, but the basic core of it is illustrated by my examples.

Since the time it was published, the Chicago Statement has been adopted by dozens of Universities around the country. Do you think that these principles should extend to all campuses or are they fundamentally opposed to some universities’ values?

Private universities are free to do whatever they want in this regard: a private Catholic school could decide, for example, that it is not going to allow anyone to come onto campus to advocate abortion. That would, of course, be a violation of the principles of free expression and academic freedom, but given the nature of the institution it could do such a thing without violating any law. Other universities which advocate the values of freedom of expression have yielded to students demanding that they disinvite speakers in ways that would not be consistent with Chicago’s principles. If they are private institutions, they can legally do that because they’re not bound by the first amendment. But, in my view, institutions that engage in such conduct are not living up to the fundamental precepts of a true University. There are always interests that are in conflict with free expression. Communism is a good example, because many people thought that Communism was un-American and that advocating these values was dangerous because it could lead people to act in ways that were harmful to the nation. Free speech always has costs, so the question is when do you yield to those costs? The University of Chicago has always stood for the principle that free expression and academic freedom are fundamental values, and that, except in truly extraordinary circumstances, they should carry the day. This is not to say that the competing interests are unimportant. But the way to pursue knowledge, to encourage open and fearless debate, and to challenge ourselves is through disagreement and open discourse, rather than by silencing speakers whose views offend us.

Do you think the report has done enough to protect freedom of expression on campus? Would you add anything to it four years out?

On the second question, no. I would not change anything in it today—there is some ambiguity in it, but that is inevitable if one is writing a statement of principles rather than a sixty page statute. In terms of difficulties of implementation, the single greatest difficulty that colleges and universities have is when students actually disrupt an event. The really difficult question there is that although every institution knows that such conduct is not permitted, how do you deal with the situation in the moment? The institution can say to the students, “Stop it, or you will be disciplined,” but if they don’t stop, the deterrence hasn’t worked and the institution might have to call in security to drag the students out. In a world of cellphones, that is not something that universities want to have plastered all over social media. But you also can’t just let them defy you and silence the speaker. It’s a no-win situation.

There is a lot of material here, and it seems as though it’s a topic that will never die out.

That’s right, it’ll never die out in the long run. But I actually think that we may have reached a different moment, because last year there were many fewer events nationally involving efforts to silence speakers.

Hopefully this means that UChicago pioneered a movement that brought about increased awareness?

To some extent, yes, but I think other factors have also come into play: I think that the very conservative students who tended to invite people like Richard Spencer and Charles Murray paid a real price because the vast majority of their fellow students were furious with them. One possibility is that their successor students are not so eager to do that again.

So, what you are saying is that it is actually bad that we are not hearing about this in the news anymore?

Yes, in the sense that they’re being deterred from doing what they have a right to do because they don’t want to get ostracized for doing it. Another possible explanation, though, is that the provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter are tired of doing it. After all, being involved in such controversies gets old after a while. A third possible explanation, and the one I hope is the primary one, is that those students whose initial instincts told them to shut down the events have come to realize that this was a terrible strategy—not only because it’s inconsistent with free speech, but also because it gives enormous publicity and power to people whose views they don’t agree with. I hope students have come to see the irony there: if no one paid attention to these speakers, there’d only be seven people in the audience and no one would ever have heard of them. Of course, this is all just speculation. It will be interesting to see what happens in the new academic year.

Well thank you very much Professor Stone for a fantastic conversation.

And thank you.

The image used in the article is courtesy of Professor Stone. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.  

Molly McCammon

Molly McCammon is a second year double majoring in Public Policy and Sociology. This past summer, she interned in the South Asia program at the DC-based Hudson Institute and spent 8 weeks in Morocco studying Arabic on a FLAG grant. On campus, she helps facilitate ESL classes and tutoring for Syrian refugees living in Hyde Park and is a Research Assistant studying transitional justice with Professor Monika Nalepa in the Political Science department. Molly enjoys cross country skiing, running, and baking excessive amounts of baklava.


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