Freedom of Expression and Protest

October 20, 2009
To: Faculty, Staff, and Students
From: President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum

At the height of attacks on the University of Chicago in the 1930s as a “hot bed of radicalism” by politicians and the national press, President Robert Maynard Hutchins responded by proclaiming our core values, asserting that “… free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, that without it they cease to be universities, and that such inquiry and hence universities are more necessary now than ever.”

This culture of inquiry and informed argument is a cherished hallmark of the University of Chicago. It flourishes in an environment where what matters is what you say, not who you are. We believe that in the open clash of ideas, progress is made and understanding emerges. But like any cultural conviction, an environment of informed argument and critical inquiry must be nurtured. It creates for the faculty, students, and staff of the University of Chicago the fundamental right and responsibility to foster and protect rational discourse in an environment marked both by the rigorous challenge of ideas and by tolerance for the expression of multiple viewpoints.

Speakers invited by faculty and students should have every expectation to be treated in accord with the highest ideals of the University. There is also a reciprocal obligation to hear from those who wish to express dissent, but not in a manner that prevents the speech of those with whom they disagree. At institutions without our strong tradition of free inquiry, speakers have been prevented from freely presenting their ideas. We had such an event occur on our campus last week. It is in this context and given the particular history of our institution that the repeated disruption by audience members of the views presented by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking at the invitation of the Harris School, is disturbing. Any stifling of debate runs counter to the primary values of the University of Chicago and to our long-standing position as an exemplar of academic freedom. It is a rupture of the sort that is rare on our campus because of our shared views of the importance of inquiry, discourse, and informed argument.

In the tradition of President Hutchins, his predecessors and successors, we remain committed to fostering an arena for the free expression of ideas because it is the essence of our existence as a great University, and we as a community will continue to defend the rights to free expression on our campus.