Meaning of free speech on campus discussed at University of Chicago forum

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

On a university campus, such as the University of Chicago, the freedom individuals have in expressing ideas is not the same as the freedom the institution has taking positions.

Provost Thomas Rosenbaum organized a Friday, May 8 forum to discuss the "Role of Free Speech on Campus," and a full range of responses emerged as a faculty panel debated such issues along with members of the University community.

"Throughout its history, the University of Chicago has embraced and defended the value of intense inquiry and informed argument," Rosenbaum told an audience of about 50 students, faculty and staff.

"Free speech is not easy. We will explore today tensions related to creating and sustaining an environment that allows for open, rigorous, and intense inquiry and debate, while at the same time fostering civil discourse, both on campus and in the classroom," Rosenbaum said.

The faculty panel, which Mark Hansen, Dean of the Division of Social Sciences, moderated, included Geoffrey Stone, the Edward Levi Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School and the College; Margaret M. Mitchell, Professor in the Divinity School; and Ram'on Guti'errez, the Preston & Sterling Morton Distinguished Service Professor in History and the College. As their point of reference, the panelists used the report of the Kalven Committee on the University's Role in Political and Social Action. The report, issued in 1967, describes the role of the University and its students and faculty on issues of corporate and individual expression.

Hansen suggested several hypothetical examples to test the relevancy of the report to contemporary issues. What if a professor "openly criticized the tenets of a religion," or described its adherents as "ignorant and blood-thirsty?" he asked.

Mitchell said that while "no topic, including religion, should be outside the boundaries of criticism," discussions should be held in a manner appropriate to scholars. That calls for argument, rather than invective.

What if a University or department organized a conference on Turkey and only included voices of people who felt the nation had committed genocide against the Armenians? Would that violate the Kalven report's restrictions on the University taking a political position? Holding such a conference would not violate the Kalven report, Stone said, as units at the University regularly expose the community to ideas and can choose to debate just one perspective. What they may not do is specifically endorse a particular position. Stone also addressed how the Kalven report helps the community understand controversial issues such as divestment from Sudan and South Africa.

The panel also discussed symbolic, possibly offensive, speech, such as T-shirts with a mocking, sacrilegious image.

What if a student wore a shirt with the crucified image of Christ with the caption "Hang in There, Baby" to class, or what if a faculty member had such a picture on his door, Hansen asked, or a staff member had such a picture behind her desk? The Kalven report does not address the staff member's freedom of expression, it was pointed out, but students and faculty are free to express such opinions.

"If a student comes to class with religious apparel that some deem offensive, it could be a teachable moment about the use of religious symbols in public," Guti'errez said. Faculty need to guard against using the opportunity as a chance to provoke someone, but rather look for opportunities to engage the class in a meaningful discussion, he said.