The University of Chicago prides itself on protecting free speech, even offensive speech, and has gone on record repeatedly as saying that controversies should not block events from taking place. The university has boasted that it educates students to hear out diverse views rather than shouting them down. Most recently, the university has stood by a faculty member who invited Steve Bannon, formerly a top aide in the Trump administration and the executive chairman of Breitbart, to appear on campus -- even though many students and faculty members are protesting the invitation.
But on Monday, a student group (making its own decision, not told to do so by the university) called off an event planned for this week. The Edmund Burke Society, a conservative debating society, canceled a planned debate on immigration, saying it could not assure an orderly event. And the society made its decision amid considerable uproar at the law school over how the student group described its event.
While the society acknowledged its use of hyperbolic rhetoric to promote its debates, that rhetoric infuriated many at the law school, with some students saying that the event and the university's mild reaction to it demonstrate a lack of understanding of what it means to be a student who is an immigrant or has immigrant roots.
The society sets up its debates with statements favoring or opposing some policy, in this case immigration. The anti-immigration portion of the statement said, in part, that immigration has made the United States "a porcelain receptacle for other nations’ wretched refuse" and that "the United States should again put America first." Also, "allowing foreign bodies to enter is inviting disease into the body politic."
The statement added, "The old country buffet [sic] has served America a cultural salad. From Chinese-Americans to Italian-Americans, we have so many subcultures that it’s hyphens all the way down. Meanwhile, chain migration is only as strong as the weakest link; no engineer is worth the drag of a freeloading cousin. At minimum, we should admit only the educated and energetic, but preserving America’s cultural and moral identity likely requires a moratorium to absorb the present flood."
As the program for the debate went on to offer the other side, it noted that "waves of industrious immigrants have not swamped our Republic; instead, the rising tide has lifted all boats. Migrants and refugees founded this country, joined this nation’s coasts with steel and coal, and helped launch many Fortune 500 companies." But even in this section, some of the "humor" did not win over supporters of immigration. One line in this section said that "without foreign labor and grit, who will build the wall?"
Thomas J. Miles, dean of the law school, sent out a statement (leaked to Above the Law, but whose accuracy has been confirmed) that led to more criticism.
"Serious academic inquiry requires an environment in which diverse perspectives, experiences, backgrounds, and ideas inform and advance the intellectual exchange. Such discourse flourishes in a climate of respect and civility. Our commitment to free expression requires that we allow uncivil speech, but it does not require that we celebrate it. I am heartened that many of the responses to this week’s events have modeled the values of reasoned discourse," wrote Miles.
The statement was criticized by students and others who noted that the descriptions of immigrants were not "reasoned discourse" nor did they represent "serious academic inquiry," and they asked why the dean hadn't more explicitly condemned the Burke society's program.
As the controversy grew, the Edmund Burke Society issued a new statement in which it said that the purpose of its statements on debate topics is "is to stimulate interest in the upcoming Debate Caucus. To that end, it sets out arguments on both sides of a resolution on which conservatives are likely to disagree among themselves. In doing so, it often employs hyperbolic language parodying both sides, along with allusions to current events and canonical works of literature."
But that did not resolve the matter.
One student sent a message to a law school Listserv that said, "I take it personally when you compare my family to trash and disease."
Another, David Raban, sent a message that said, "Dear Law Students Association, Why do you continue to fund the Edmund Burke Society when there are hundreds of students that believe it contributes to a hostile environment that exists at the University of Chicago Law School? Dear University of Chicago Law School Administration, Why do you, through your silence, contribute to the culture of complicity that allows the Edmund Burke Society to perpetuate a hostile environment that exists at the University of Chicago Law School?"
The Edmund Burke Society did not respond to a request for comment on its decision to call off the event.
A university spokesman released this statement: "Any recognized student group, faculty group, university department or individual faculty member is free to organize event programming so long as it does not violate university policies. This event has been planned by a student group at the Law School; such groups have discretion over the content and timing of their events. The university does not assess events that faculty or students organize based on agreement or disagreement with their perspectives. Faculty and students at the university host an extremely wide diversity of events, reflecting the diverse interests in the university community."