UChicago event examines challenges facing freedom of expression

Upholding academic free speech is a university’s ‘institutional duty,’ legal expert says

To advance free expression as a core value, the University of Chicago must cultivate and be open to new ideas and unexpected ways of thinking, President Paul Alivisatos said at a new event series that explores academic freedom and freedom of expression.

The inaugural Sam and Helen Zell Event Series Program, which was held Nov. 9, featured leading scholars discussing challenges facing free expression.

“If we are to position ourselves as staunch advocates of free expression, it’s also imperative that the University dedicate itself to constantly reflecting on the state of free expression on campus and beyond,” Alivisatos said.

The event featured an address from Anthony Julius, a British lawyer and scholar; and a panel discussion with UChicago scholars. Julius said that the conviction that democratic self-government is impossible without free speech runs deep in the United States, and that to place limits on speech would imperil the “national project.”

“It is moving and impressive, and it explains why the United States is still the world’s exemplary liberal democracy,” said Julius, the deputy chairman of law firm Mishcon de Reya and the Chair of Law and the Arts at University College London.

Universities often stand at the center of free expression challenges and must navigate the new censoriousness that is “commonly defended in the name of free speech,” Julius said. It is the notion that “this or that must be excluded, suppressed in order that X or Y may be freed into speech.”

“Suppression of texts, courses, etc., in the name of non-academic values or interests, identity, religion, politics and so on, are attacks on academic speech that must be resisted, not in the name of free speech in general … but in the name of academic free speech, which it is the institutional duty of the university to uphold,” Julius concluded.

In a discussion following Julius’ address, Profs. Tom Ginsburg and Genevieve Lakier of the University of Chicago Law School reflected on how the contemporary period has revealed the danger and power and importance of free speech.

“Individual tweets can move markets,” Lakier said. “They can threaten democracy.”

They also can make people millions of dollars.

The power of speech is obvious, she said, especially to her students, and the questions surrounding free expression have become more complex for the public sphere and universities to wrestle with.

But, she said, she’s an optimist about the state of freedom of expression and thinks discussions surrounding academic free speech are vital.