This school just made one of the boldest defenses of free speech you’ll ever hear Wikimedia/IceUnshattered
Wikimedia/ IceUnshattered

In an age when “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” too often take precedent over free speech in higher education, one college has dared to be bold. This week, the University of Chicago sent a letter to all its incoming freshmen that stands as one of the boldest defenses of the marketplace of ideas ever made by a college administration.

Here it is, transcribed by Intellectual Takeout:

Welcome and congratulations on your acceptance to the college at the University of Chicago. Earning a place in our community of scholars is no small achievement and we are delighted that you selected Chicago to continue your intellectual journey.

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. …Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Our commitment to academic freedom means that 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 especially powerful because, as a private institution, the University of Chicago has no legal obligation to protect the First Amendment on its campus. In fact, other similarly prestigious private schools have wandered in the opposite direction. Harvard University, for example, recently enacted a policy threatening to revoke the scholarships of students who join single-sex societies like their famously secretive final clubs – a serious blow to free association.

It’s important to note how bold the statement is, too. Nearly every school has some sort of nod to free speech in their handbooks, but Chicago does not hold back in being specific about what free speech does and does not mean. In particular, it does not mean speaker disinvitations, trigger warnings, and safe spaces — the three most popular intimidation techniques of modern campus activists.

Chicago is not just talking a big talk, either. The institution has already match its words with action. In April, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) rewarded Chicago their highest free speech rating, “green light,” for reforming all of its speech codes:

In January 2015, UC’s Committee on Freedom of Expression, chaired by Professor Geoffrey Stone, released its policy statement on free speech, which guarantees “all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” FIRE quickly endorsed the robust statement and, in September 2015, launched a national campaign encouraging all colleges and universities in the country to adopt the principles set forth in the statement. To date, at least 11 institutions and faculty bodies have adopted their own version of the Chicago Statement.

Fostering a healthy exchange of ideas on college campuses is no petty matter. Although the students may be merely 18-to-22-year-olds, they will soon be future voters, decision makers, and thought leaders. It is a critical lesson of adulthood that not everyone thinks alike – and that’s a good thing, not a bad one. We cannot have a prosperous society if our culture is too afraid to challenge the status quo, propose new ideas, and exchange knowledge freely.

Three cheers to the University of Chicago for their brave defense of the marketplace of ideas. Let’s hope other schools follow suit.

Casey Given About the author:
Casey Given is executive Director of Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @caseyjgiven
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