On July 26, graduate students, professors, and interested community members gathered at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago for the kick-off event of the three-part 2017 Chicago Humanities Summit: Speech and Privilege. The day-long summit was organized by the Chicago Humanities Festival as an opportunity to discuss and debate the contentious issue of free speech on college campuses.
This event began with remarks by University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer on how The University of Chicago has handled free speech issues. He was followed by a panel consisting of Northwestern University Provost Jonathan Holloway (formerly Dean of the undergraduate Yale College), Professor Allison Stanger of Middlebury College (who was attacked by students for interviewing conservative political scientist Charles Murray), and Johns Hopkins Bioethics Masters Student Cameron Okeke (a University of Chicago Alumnus who is passionate about speech and diversity on college campuses). The panel was moderated by Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed, who has written extensively on the issue of free speech.
President Zimmer began by pointing out that free speech can be “offensive and wounding.” Accordingly, The University of Chicago has a culture of teaching its students to generate arguments that recognize assumptions, a culture which can be uncomfortable for students. Zimmer recognized the history of exclusionary behavior which has been practiced by universities in the past and presented free speech as a tool in avoiding exclusionary behavior.
Zimmer also laid out the arguments for the suppression of free speech. These arguments stem from an empathy for oppressed groups. Universities have often not been inclusive, and some argue that to be inclusive, we have to suppress the speech of those who do not agree with us in order to give equal space to the discourse of those previously excluded. This argument assumes moral and political superiority. Zimmer thinks suppression of free speech fails to provide students with a strong education by shielding them from uncomfortable ideas, and it deprives students of the opportunity to learn the skills to deal with such arguments.
When asked what responsibility free speech had to the facts, Zimmer responded that the best way to combat speech is with more speech. Another notable question was on the distinction between hate speech and free speech. According to Zimmer, a line cannot be drawn because too much power goes to the person who draws it.
After a twenty-minute break, the panel discussion began, taking on a less academic and more conversational tone.
Jonathan Holloway told the audience about how when he was dean of the undergraduates at Yale, a student wanted to schedule Milo Yiannopoulos to speak. The student went through all of the proper means to schedule a speaker, so the college went along as they would with any other speaker and provided the security necessary to have the event. However, Milo cancelled because the event would not be completely filled, and he only speaks at completely sold-out events—someone forgot to look at the calendar and scheduled Milo to speak during Yale’s fall break. The takeaway, according to Holloway, is that it is important to respect those who you do not agree with and to follow protocol.
Professor Alison Stagner of Middlebury College, who was given a concussion by enraged students after agreeing to interview Charles Murray, a conservative political scientist and writer, seemed to harbor no resentment towards the students who attacked her. She seemed enlivened by the discussion her injuries created, telling the audience that the students were driven by the desire to shut down speech as a means to social justice. However, she pointed out that many of the students had never read Charles Murray, and if they had, it was out-of-context quotes from websites. With this, she warned against the power of the mob mentality and the need for students to inform themselves before reacting.
The most powerful moment of the event was when Charles Oakley, the youngest member of the panel, told a story about a welcome week seminar required for all first year University of Chicago students titled “Life on the South Side.” As young black man from the South Side of Chicago, he began his college career starry-eyed at the prestige of The University of Chicago. However, at this seminar, one of the first questions asked was “what do you do when you see a black person walking on your side of the street?” Oakley said at the time he approached the situation with humor, asking, “What if the person is my mom? My cousins? My friends?” The students had a discussion about how to react to black people on the street. Apparently, for many, the answer was “cross to the other side.”
After Oakley told this story, the room fell into a somber silence at the emotional and social implications speech like this can have on students who come from minority backgrounds.
When the audience at the summit began asking questions, the issues both the audience and panel seemed to grapple with included: how can we respond to hate speech in ways which defend free speech? How do we engage in these difficult discussions and lead constructive discourse? How do we establish goodwill and set the rules for civil conversations?
The panel and audience were pushing for answers. Professor Stagner responded to Charles Oakley’s comments on the difficulties of speaking up as the only minority in a classroom by telling the audience that she tries to bring out the minority voices by having students submit question online and having them bringing up their points in class.
Moderator Scott Jaschik, who has reported on free speech protests across the country, brought up how protesters have refused to speak to him until he takes an ideological test to prove he is a liberal reporter. Jaschik pointed out how this culture of suspicion towards the press makes it difficult to share their message.
Panelists’ stories offered a glimpse into how free speech can be protected without people feeling threatened or ostracized. Takeaways included treating all speakers with the same degree of process and respect, actively encouraging minority students to speak up in classrooms, and taking the time to listen to those one might disagree with before jumping to conclusions
Overall, the panel discussion was lively and productive, and it even illuminated how free speech debates on campuses can end up being ridiculous (Professor Stanger mentioned how drunk white people wandering around Middlebury College with sombreros on is deemed offensive). However, the importance of how we choose to move forward with free speech debates on campus and the implications this issue has for our democracy weighed heavily upon the room.
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