UChicago hosts student-led conference on free expression

University of Chicago undergraduates have convened a national conference of students committed to supporting the values of free expression on university campuses.

The nonpartisan event, which took place April 28-29 on the UChicago campus, included 22 students from 14 schools across the country. Students held sessions with experts in law and politics, discussed the climate around free speech at their colleges and universities, and by the end of the meeting they developed a statement of principles supporting free expression. The organizers are encouraging other students, faculty and alumni from schools around the country to endorse the principles.

“We’re hoping this will kick-start a grass-roots, student-centered movement to reinforce the values of free expression and the importance of fostering diverse and inclusive campus communities,” said Matthew Foldi, a College third-year who led the student organizers at UChicago. “As our statement says, we want to reclaim the original tradition of students who stood for free speech on campuses, for people of diverse backgrounds, perspectives and ideologies.”

Foldi said it was natural for UChicago to lead the event, given the University’s tradition of upholding freedom of expression, most recently through the influential Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression in 2015. In addition, earlier this year many faculty members across the country signed a separate statement supporting free expression. Foldi said many students on campus already agree with those principles, and students from around the country have told him they want their schools to value the principles more strongly. His group is encouraging a spirit of student advocacy for free speech.

Speakers at the two-day event included Law School Professors Geoffrey Stone and Randal Picker, as well as David Axelrod, director of UChicago’s Institute of Politics. In addition to students who attended from UChicago, the students represented a broad cross-section of private and public colleges and universities: Clemson University, DePaul University, Grand Valley State University, James Madison University, Michigan State University, New York University, Northwestern University, Princeton University, Truman College, the University of Maryland, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the University of Michigan and the University of Nevada-Reno.

Foldi’s group collaborated with the Office of the Dean of Students in the University to organize the event. “We welcome opportunities to work with students to build an understanding and sense of ownership of the principles of free expression that are so important to campus life, especially at this university,” said Michele Rasmussen, the dean of students in the University. “These students have taken those ideas to the next level in a way that only they can do.”

The group said they hope current college and university students and alumni across the nation will review the statement and add their names in support.

“Within 24 hours, we received hundreds of signatures from around the country,” Foldi said. “As far as we’re concerned, the conference was the easy part. Now the real work begins.”