Following are answers to some questions about the disruption of a speech on the University of Chicago campus by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday, October 15, 2009.
By what process was Ehud Olmert invited to speak at the University of Chicago?
Prime Minister Olmert was invited to speak as part of a lecture series hosted by the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies. The lecture series, titled the King Abdullah II Annual Leadership Lecture, is designed to advance discussion of international affairs by bringing to campus world leaders, former leaders and leading experts on world events. The lecture series, which began in 2005, maintains an endowment that is used to cover the costs of the lectures. King Abdullah II of Jordan has not contributed to the endowment. Decisions on which lecturers to invite for the series are made by a Harris School committee, based on independent academic judgment about the speaker’s knowledge and prominence in international affairs.
What are the University’s values with respect to freedom of expression and academic inquiry?
The University of Chicago has a longstanding and powerful commitment to a culture of free and open inquiry, spirited debate, and the exploration of diverse ideas. As President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum wrote in a letter to campus, “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.”
This deeply held belief means that opinions will frequently be expressed, ideas proposed and debated, and speakers invited to campus which generate strong disagreement and even discomfort.
How does the University ensure that diverse views are heard when a speaker is invited to campus?
When speakers are invited to campus, wherever possible we work to ensure that there will be an opportunity for a question-and-answer period with the audience. In addition, we respect the rights of protesters to express their disagreement with the speaker or the topic, both in connection with the particular event and in other forums. However, such protests must be conducted in a manner that does not interfere with the speaker’s ability to speak, nor with the audience’s ability to engage with the speaker in question-and-answer.
When speakers are invited to talk about controversial or political topics, does the University require that opposing views be given equal time?
The University does not require that every speaker invited to campus or topic addressed in a public forum be paired with an opposing view. Many speakers are invited to campus who represent a very particular point of view. Over time and in a variety of forums, a diverse range of views is represented among the many events and speakers sponsored by individuals, units and student organizations.
Does the University respect the rights of dissenters to protest and express their views?
In accordance with its fierce and deep commitment to freedom of expression, the University has exhibited great respect for the rights of protesters to be heard. As long as they proceed peacefully and in accordance with basic regulations governing safety and disruption of University business, protesters are given wide latitude to express their views.
However, protesters may not behave in a manner that threatens the free speech of others. For example, a protest that prevents an invited speaker from communicating with his or her audience is as much a violation of our values on freedom of expression as would be the suppression of dissent and protest.
What preparations did the University make in advance of Ehud Olmert’s talk in order to ensure that freedom of expression was preserved for all parties?
Staff members from the Office of Campus and Student Life spoke in advance with the event hosts and potential protest groups, in order to reaffirm the University’s values and assure that the event could occur and that any protests would proceed peacefully. In addition, a brief explanation of our standards for freedom of expression was emailed in advance to all registered attendees, distributed in written form to everybody in the hall, and read from the podium at the outset of the event.
What specifically occurred during Ehud Olmert’s talk on October 15?
The event proceeded at about 4:40 p.m. on October 15, with about 600 people in the audience. However, Prime Minister Olmert’s remarks were frequently disrupted by members of the audience who shouted loudly enough to prevent him from speaking. Those who disrupted the talk were warned; those who persisted were removed from the event by police. A total of 18 people, including four University of Chicago students, were removed from the event. Olmert’s talk ended with a question-and-answer period, which concluded about 6 p.m.
The Harris School asked that questions from the audience be submitted in advance. Because many more questions were submitted than there was time for, students have asked that the questions that were submitted be made public. Those questions are available here.
In addition, about 100 protesters conducted a peaceful protest outside the building where the event was occurring.
Were the protesters who were removed from the event University of Chicago students?
Of the 18 people removed from the event, four are University of Chicago students. The other 14 individuals are not current students, faculty or staff at the University.
What was the University’s response to the disruption?
President Zimmer and Provost Rosenbaum issued a letter to campus on October 20, reaffirming the University’s commitment to freedom of expression and criticizing the disruption as counter to those values. In addition, the Harris School and the Office of Campus and Student Life have hosted, and will continue to host, meetings with students, faculty, and staff to discuss what occurred.
Will there be disciplinary actions in response to the disruption?
There are provisions in the University Statutes and in the Student Handbook that address disruption of events, and they outline disciplinary processes for members of the University community who violate these policies. The University is following the appropriate disciplinary process. Disciplinary decisions are confidential and will not be discussed publicly.
What additional follow-up will there be by the University?
The University will create additional opportunities over the coming weeks and months for education, dialogue, and debate about its commitment to freedom of expression, and how that works for its community members in practice.
How can I learn more about the University’s commitment to freedom of expression and open inquiry?
Here are some additional resources:
President Zimmer and Provost’s Rosenbaum Letter to Campus (October 20, 2009)
Campus Forum on Free Speech (May 8, 2009)
Kalven Report (November 1967)
Geoffrey Stone’s Aims of Education Address, “Academic Freedom and Responsibility” (September 24, 1995)
President Zimmer’s 500th Convocation Address (October 9, 2009)