Why U. Chicago Wouldn’t Know Free Speech If It Bit Them on the Ass.
If you’re a college student or, for that matter, a professor, a dean or an employee in any capacity at a U.S. institution of higher learning, then you’ve probably heard about the University of Chicago’s letter to their freshman class of 2020. In it, they reaffirm their commitment to freedom of expression and open dialogue, which is, in of it itself, a wonderful and expected thing, but the newsworthy section comes after this initial statement, and reads more like something you would find on 4chan or one of the seedier subreddits. The paragraph reads, in part, “we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
This statement is reasonable enough on its face, but it betrays a deep misunderstanding on the part of U. Chicago’s administration about what “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” actually are. For those who are unaware, and I counted myself in this group until very recently, a “trigger warning” is akin to a content warning on television. It simply exists to give a little warning to people who may be personally affected by the topics contained. Take, for instance, a presentation given at my school, William and Mary, which was meant to raise awareness about the existence and prevention of sexual misconduct on campus. This was, and I can’t emphasize this enough, a mandatory presentation, as well it should have been, and before we sat down to watch it, our orientation adviser simply let us know that the presentation might touch on some sensitive subjects. This was not an opportunity for students to, in the words of U. Chicago’s Dean of Students Jay Ellison, “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own”. It was a heads up, a little warning to give those who might have been personally affected by the topic (which was, I think you can agree, an especially sensitive one) a chance to prepare themselves.
And perhaps this is all there is to the issue: a misunderstanding on the part of U. Chicago’s administration, and one that can, as this short paragraph demonstrates, easily be resolved. That would be lovely, but unfortunately I don’t think it’s the case. Just last year the University nearly prevented their own student body president, Tyler Kissinger, from graduating because he took part in a peaceful protest focusing on a variety of issues, including policing transparency, a living wage for University employees and expanding access for disabled students in campus buildings. Many of these demands came, according to protestor Anna Wood, a student also employed by the University at minimum wage, out of concern that “decisions are being made by increasingly smaller groups of administrators and trustees who are mostly looking after the interests of profit and prestige”. This, and the university’s long history of responding harshly to student protest, including a massive expulsion of students involved in anti-war demonstrations in the late sixties, suggests to me that the University administration has set up quite a nice double standard for themselves. Certainly students are, and should be, made to listen to and engage with diverse views, but god forbid the University should have to listen to its own students and staff when they raise legitimate concerns about University policy. It’s all well and good for the school to say it’s in favor of free speech, but if it refuses to let the campus community involve itself in decision making then the students might as well be shouting into Chicago’s omnipresent wind.
I think these factors, taken together, betray a simple and terrible fact: U. Chicago’s administration does not respect its students. It doesn’t trust them to take part in campus policy and it doesn’t trust them have an open discussion without a letter to tell them what that is. So to the University of Chicago I have this to say: communication is a two way street, and you can shout to your freshman class about freedom of inquiry and open dialogue all you want, but when you refuse to hear their concerns you send a message that some speech, after all, is frowned upon.
Beyond this, the letter, as a piece of comprehensive University policy, is still deeply flawed. I won’t go into too much detail on this point, but I will link to a wonderful analysis by one much more qualified than me: The U. of Chicago’s Flawed Support for Freedom of Expression. This piece, written by Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, goes into depth about the flaws of U. Chicago’s free speech policy, including the lack of moderation or academic responsibility that most Universities include as standard practice.
All of this is, at its core, an overreaction to so-called “Social Justice Warriors” (a term I detest for its use by the alt-right), and not one that is particularly justified. They fear a muzzling of opinion; I would tell them to listen to their community. They fear a closing of debate; I would tell them to engage in it. They fear most of all that their students will be coddled; I would tell them, once and for all, to give their students a little credit.