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In response to rising tensions around free speech, many colleges and universities have endorsed the Chicago principles, which express a commitment to free inquiry and an environment of open expression. A variety of groups, including FIRE and Heterodox Academy, have promoted these principles.
Somehow, they all have gotten it wrong.
Not because the principles are not useful. They represent an admirable effort to restate and reinforce colleges and universities’ long-standing commitment to free speech, a necessary condition for conducting research and advancing knowledge. The First Amendment guides public and (most) private institutions because free inquiry is at the core of their work, and that requires strong protections for unpopular and controversial ideas.
Rather, the Chicago principles’ main shortcoming is in the false assurance they offer the colleges and universities who endorse them. They rely on a legalistic and formal framework that purports to offer a response to a set of problems that has little use for such blunt tools. They fail to recognize that higher education institutions must address the current tensions brewing under the heading of “free speech” -- brought on by students, faculty members and outside forces -- by reconsidering, and possibly shifting, a host of practices in classrooms, dorms, clubs and administrations in ways that would differ across campuses. Those tensions cannot simply be resolved by endorsing a one-size-fits-all statement.
As the current controversy over the endorsement of the Chicago principles at Williams College indicates, some are starting to recognize their limited value. On campuses, challenges to free speech come mostly from students -- and sometimes from faculty members -- who sense that they are not accepted as equal members of the community and who seek a guarantee that their voices will be heard and respected. The most pressing concerns are voiced by students who are members of various (racial, religious, sexual and other) minority groups, who view some common practices in their colleges -- admissions, academics, events -- as undermining their equal membership. Responses to those diverse concerns can only be contextual and should take into account the history and social conditions of the specific institutions in which such issues are put forth.
If a group of young female aspiring scientists are raising concerns about statements that faculty members are making in their classes and labs, the institutional response should depend on whether those students are at, say, Bryn Mawr, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Utah State University. If African American students express opposition to a campus group’s invitation to an anti-Black Lives Matter speaker, their paths for legitimate protest are paved by the college’s history, its student body makeup and the willingness of the college leadership to work with them and help them make their voices heard (rather than restricting them to a "free speech zone").
The Chicago principles would provide little guidance in such cases. An administration that endorsed them may be expressing its commitment to protect the professor and the invited speakers, but would that suffice as a response? It does nothing to satisfy the concerns of the students nor helps the college fulfill its mission to not only advance research but also educate all of its students. Free speech will be protected, but some students will find it harder to benefit from their education; they may be effectively silenced, which may be permissible but is surely undesirable. The invitation to speak their minds in response does little to help create an environment conducive to learning if they feel as though they are shouting into a void; in some states, protesting can lead to disciplinary action.
The endorsement of the Chicago principles may help with a different group that feels excluded, namely, conservative and right-leaning students, whose concerns are echoed and amplified by conservative think tanks, politicians and news media. The chief complaints: colleges and universities are too liberal; they don’t allow students to think for themselves. The principles are likely to assuage some concerns among students as well as outside parties that are fanning the flames of the public debate on free speech.
The Chicago principles can thus serve as a rather effective response to the portrayal of campuses as “safe spaces,” or as caving to student identity-based demands and to faculty ideological biases. But that comes at the expense of these institutions’ commitment to their teaching mission, which relies on an inclusive climate and an expressed atmosphere that can assure all campus members that their voices are valued and heard. Such a climate and atmosphere might have been assumed in colleges where all students (and faculty members) came from a similar background. But they require more attention as campuses grow more diverse yet maintain some structures that reflect their old makeup. Institutional attention to these new tensions is necessary.
Today, the endorsement of the Chicago principles comes at the expense of the reasonable demands from people on campuses who argue that free speech that protects the expression of biased views creates an unequal burden that they are made to carry -- especially as free speech today is too often used as a political tool by the right. If an institutional endorsement of the principles is the end of the conversation about free speech, it undermines the ability of that college or university to fulfill its teaching mission.
The main way to avoid this outcome is to treat the endorsement of the principles as a means of starting a conversation about campus speech rather than as an end in itself. Or, if an institution prefers, it can replace the declaration of endorsement with an open conversation about what a specific campus needs in this domain. As the chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Committee on Open Expression, I engaged in many such conversations on my campus. And after publishing Free Speech on Campus, I have taken up this discussion at numerous other colleges and universities. These can be very productive conversations when engaged in openly and honestly. They can lead to crafting guidelines that fit the institution’s history, makeup and needs, and to a commitment to continuously maintain an inclusive and open climate on the campus. It can readily support an environment where free speech is protected and the burdens that it creates on some people are recognized and alleviated.
The current state of free speech will not be resolved by making better rules or endorsing any set of principles, no matter how well crafted. Policies are necessary to ensure equal treatment, but preserving free speech on campuses requires a redoubling of our efforts to include all of our students in a community of free inquiry. That requires a continuing commitment to listening and responding to the legitimate demands of students who feel excluded, while helping them grow and recognize their agency and power.
Free speech that includes all members of the campus community is necessary for fulfilling higher education’s mission. And that requires pushing back on the narrative of the biased college full of fragile students and especially on legislation that would limit people’s ability to speak freely on campuses, including by protesting. The higher education sector is far from perfect, but no other institutions in the United States today practice free speech as well as colleges and universities do.
Students may still be young and have a lot to learn -- that’s why they come to college -- but they demand that we fulfill the promise of democratic deliberation and equal dignity to all. They deserve our attention. Endorsing premade rules shuts them out.